Brittany cliff path ruling is win for hikers over ‘rich people’

The fight centres on a 1976 law that says there must be a public path at least three metres wide, from the point of highest water, along the French coast

27 October 2021

Clifftop villas on the Brittany coast Pic: London Observer / Shutterstock

By Brian McCulloch

A 40-year battle between owners of cliff-top houses and ramblers was back in court this autumn – with a victory to the ramblers.

The fight centres on a 1976 law that says there must be a public path at least three metres wide, from the point of highest water, along the French coast.

In Saint-Briac, near Saint-Malo, in Brittany, this means ramblers have a right to walk through the cliff-top gardens of the villas, many built in the 19th century and commanding the best views of the sea.

Case was previously thrown out on a technicality

A detour inland had been put in place for the GR35 hiking route around Brittany.

Judges threw out a first case brought by ramblers on a technicality in the 1980s.

Instead of authorities holding the recommended public inquiry, the law was ignored for many years until a local association started protesting. It eventually won a ruling in France’s highest court, which led to the path being opened in 2019.

Read more: Next generation of French hikers turns to outdoor micro-adventures

One homeowner had to build a walkway around a swimming pool, built without permission in the 1990s, for the official opening event. Residents’ lawyers complained that the owners were being “gawked at like animals in a zoo”.

Since then, the side of the path along the walkway closest to the pool has been covered by a fence and screen, blocking the view of swimmers.

Appeal court ruling

In the latest judicial twist, the government took the matter to the top appeal court, the Cour de Cassation, last year after some of the villa owners won an appeal in the administrative court at Nantes.

Owners complained that delays by the state in improving the safety of the footpath meant walkers were in danger of tumbling down the cliffs and argued the path should be shut.

The Cour de Cassation decided to send the matter back to Nantes, which this time said the state of the path was fine and it should stay open. Nevertheless, it demanded that the state hurry up with its proposed safety measures.

Les Amis des Chemins de Ronde d’Ille-et-Vilaine, the association which led the battle against the cliff-top homeowners, was jubilant.

“It is finally victory after 40 years,” Patrice Bauche of the association told The Connexion.

“Even if the path deteriorates because the state does not maintain it, the court has said it should not be shut and that the state must act to ensure the safety of the walkers.”

In its court arguments, the association pointed out that since the coast path was last opened by a court order, in 2019, there had been no incidents involving the safety of walkers, nor landslides.

20 landowners had opposed path

The coastal path at Saint-Briac Pic: Patrice Bauché / Amis des Chemins de Ronde

Mr Bauche said 20 landowners originally fought against keeping the path, but three had withdrawn after realising they faced hefty legal fees.

One of the parties involved is the wealthy US Forbes family, which has former US secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry as a cousin, and former French ecology minister Brice Lalonde as another cousin.

Another property owner is the heir of one of France’s largest road haulage companies, who currently lives in Panama.

Mr Bauche said the only count of the number of hikers using the path was carried out in the early 1990s, and it showed that in the height of summer 150 people walked along it a day.

“It was ridiculous that hikers had to leave the coastline because the path was blocked illegally by rich people,” he said.  “At last, it looks as though the law of the land will apply, 40 years after it should have done.”

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