A French MP is working with rural campaigners to protect countryside paths and public footpaths across France after estimating that 200,000 km of routes have disappeared in the past 40 years.
Stéphane Delautrette, MP for Haute-Vienne, has joined experts to warn that rural paths are in danger, and need protecting to stop their gradual “haemorrhaging”. Public access to the paths is at risk from private farmers and developers, he said.
“These paths are a real heritage, and can help the development of tourism, hiking, horse-riding and cycling,” Mr Delautrette told Le Figaro. “It's a heritage that needs to be preserved. Over 200,000 kilometres of rural footpaths have disappeared in France in the last 40 years.”
He says he is putting forward a legal proposal to “improve the protection of rural paths and support communes’ private property.”
Rural paths have a long history in France, with many dating back to the middle ages. The right to use them was first protected by law in 1807, however in 1959 they were declared the private property of communes.
Today, many have forgotten their existence.
Lack of resources to maintain the paths
“Of the 750,000 or so kilometres of rural footpaths in France, thousands are disappearing every year,” added local councillor Charles Péot, who is also director of the Codever group that promotes free access to footpaths in rural areas.
“Every week, I receive one to three notices of public utility enquiries launched by local authorities who want to dispose of a path or even as many as ten paths at a time, by selling them to neighbouring farmers, private individuals or developers,” said Mr Péot.
Some villages say they are forced to get rid of their footpaths, due to a lack of resources to maintain them. Footpaths have been considered to belong privately to communes since January 7, 1959, meaning that their maintenance is dependent on the local authority.
Mr Péot said that his association aims to “check the usefulness of these paths on a case-by-case basis,” but struggles to respond “to all the public utility enquiries launched by local authorities…before [they] dispose of the paths” because there are so many requests.
He explained that communes are not supposed to sell paths that are still being used regularly by members of the public. “Abandonment [of a path] must be the result of a lack of public interest,” he said.
Residents who live next to a path are also not permitted to block the way, or ‘take back’ the path by installing a fence, gate, or letting bushes grow and obstruct the route.
Jacky Boucaret, member of the Chemins en Danger national collective, told The Connexion that many landowners are wilfully ignorant of the rural paths.
“Many winegrowers and farmers act as if these paths are their sole property: putting up fences, ploughing them, turning them into usable land. They even include the area of rural paths in their claims for European grant money,” he said
Under these conditions, walkers gradually desert them and if after 30 years they are no longer used the winegrower / farmer can become de facto owners.
“These paths are part of our heritage, and the right to travel on them was part of the Cahiers de doléances of revolutionaries during the French Revolution.”
“We need to strengthen the law to force the thieves who have usurped them to give them back,” Mr Boucaret told The Connexion.
Recently, in Tarn, a farmer asserted ownership over a stretch of rural path that ran through his land and has effectively cut it off from use.
Daniel Fleckinger, who lives in the nearby hamlet of Les Abriols, said: “[The farmer] was able to convince the courts - who obviously did not read our detailed file - that he had been maintaining this path for more than 30 years but this is totally inaccurate.”
The farmer’s actions now mean that three former footpaths now “come to a dead end”, said Mr Fleckinger. He added that the mairie did not help, so “we are probably going to appeal to [department capital] Toulouse”.
If they wish, mairies can appeal to the police for help in taking back a path, and also call on the local environmental agency to remove obstructions and trim hedges and overgrowth.
Locals fighting back
Sometimes, local fight-back campaigns are successful.
In 2021, the commune of Châtillon en Bazois in Nièvre in central France abandoned its plan to sell a dozen rural paths to a large forestry owner. Locals took the commune to court and - faced with the prospect of losing the case - the authority cancelled the sale.
Many footpaths in France date back to the 19th century and earlier. They were considered public rights of way, and part of the local heritage. Yet, “with the growth of farming mechanisation after the war”, the footpaths began to “irritate” farmers, said Mr Boucaret.
But for Benoist Grangier, a local from a commune in Nièvre (Bourgogne-Franche-Comté), they are not just a relic from history, but are still highly relevant.
“They are used for a variety of purposes that they were not originally intended for as many leisure activities did not exist,” he said.
“They are used by walkers, joggers, hunters, mountain bikers, motorcyclists and quad bike riders.”
“They must be used as much as possible if they are to avoid disappearing. They should be put back on the list of municipal roads as they would [then] be untouchable.”
Protecting the paths is about “winning the trust” of local residents, whether farmers or private individuals, he said, adding that “81% of rural road disposal projects are carried out by people who want to buy peace and quiet”.
One campaigner, Emmanuel Hyest, president of FNSafer and a rural mayor and farmer in Normandy, said: “I defend rural paths where they serve a useful purpose, such as leading to a wood, a paddock, or the continuity of an existing hiking route enabling a loop to be made.
“But if they are no longer of use and are no longer maintained, it makes sense for them to be bought up by local residents, individuals or farmers. We need to think on a case-by-case basis,” he said.
Campaigners are now looking ahead to the 30th annual ‘Journées des Chemins’ - which is set to take place from March 2 to 17, 2024 across France - as their next high-profile awareness-raising fortnight.
The fortnight, which has taken place annually since 1994, sees the organisation of litter-picking and maintenance projects on rural paths. Several hundred rural communities host events, which also include meet-ups for sporting enthusiasts who use the paths - including walkers, mountain bikers, horse riders, motorcycle riders, quad bikers, 4x4 vehicle drivers, and even hunters.
Read more: How to join a hiking club in France
In 2023, more than 600 volunteers nationwide helped to collect one and a half tonnes of rubbish, “including the wreckage of a caravan, washing machines and tyres,” and they managed to “reopen 64,425 km of paths”, said Mr Péot.