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France draws ire over wind farm next to WWI memorial

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Paris, France—Opponents of a wind farm planned next to a battlefield in France where hundreds of Australian soldiers died during World War I are urging the government to cancel the plan, calling it an affront to the memory of the dead.

Politicians and campaigners have spent years trying to overturn plans for turbines next to World War I killing fields in northern France, where around 10,000 Australians were among hundreds of thousands killed and wounded.

In 2017, Australian officials expressed relief after French state electricity company Engie pulled the plug on a wind farm project in Bullecourt, site of two battles that were particularly deadly for the Australians.

The firm said at the time that the negative reaction—not least from the French state—had underscored the site’s “sacredness.”

The same year, French authorities rejected plans for another wind farm next to Australia’s national war memorial in Villers-Bretonneux, close to President Emmanuel Macron’s hometown of Amiens, saying it would be a blot on the landscape.

But in March this year, an appeal court in the town of Douai overturned that decision and gave wind energy company Les Vents de Picardie the green light to proceed with the farm around five kilometers from the memorial.

The case has become a cause celebre among local politicians, who are piling pressure on Macron to take the fight to France’s top courts.

“We cannot accept that the transition to green energy, which is necessary, be given precedence over the memory of, and respect for the dead,” Christophe Coulon, vice-president of the Hauts-de-France region, told AFP in a telephone interview.

“It’s a moral issue,” said Coulon, who held a press conference with two other prominent local politicians at the memorial site on Thursday.

But the government has so far refused to contest the decision.

Ecology minister Barbara Pompili’s office told AFP last month it was not generally opposed to the idea of wind turbines being visible from memorial sites, so would not refer the case to higher courts.

Villers-Bretonneux marks the site of one of Australia’s greatest World War I victories when Australian troops encircled the village and retook it from Nazi forces, some 1,200 dying the fight.

Every year, a small Anzac Day ceremony is held at the site, which is one of the first stop-offs in France for many Australian tourists.

‘An affront’

The memorial, which is next to a military cemetery, has a tower surrounded by walls and panels inscribed with the names of the 10,732 Australian troops who died in France with no known grave. 

“We will never forget our history and the ultimate sacrifice made by the Australians,” said Stephane Haussoulier, president of the Somme area, who joined Coulon at the press conference.  

He views the prospect of wind turbines looming over the site as an “affront to our Australian comrades.” 

The campaign has tapped into simmering resentment in northern France over the growing numbers of wind turbines looming on the horizon.

Many northerners complain that their region is being saddled with a disproportionate number of the wind farms needed to help France slash its carbon emissions.

An arch-rival of Macron who has announced a bid to become president next year on a center-right ticket, Xavier Bertrand, joined the fray last month.

In a letter to the government he warned that the wind farm risked “harming the character” of the Villers-Bretonneux memorial, “not to mention the feeling of being hemmed in.”

In 2017, Canberra was fulsome in its praise of France’s efforts to preserve the memory of its fallen soldiers.

Then veteran affairs minister Dan Tehan, now in charge of trade and tourism, said that the campaign against the Bullecourt wind farm showed “how the French still, 100 years on, take so importantly what Australians were prepared to do for them.” 

Asked for comment about the Villers-Bretonneux project, the Australian embassy in Paris on Thursday declined to make a statement. 


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