Soulac-Sur-Mer beach, in France, affected by coastal erosion
The eroding beach of Soulac-sur-Mer, in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. Photo: Observatoire de la Côte Aquitaine, Com’ by AVM, 2020

On the Atlantic shore, coastal erosion reveals France’s legal shortcomings

On the beaches of the Atlantic ocean, dunes are swept away by waves and storms, and threaten seaside properties, highlighting France’s legal system unpreparedness.
On the beaches of the Atlantic ocean, dunes are swept away by waves and storms, and threaten seaside properties, highlighting France’s legal system unpreparedness.

“Very early, I had realized this matter would end badly”, confides Jean-José Guichet. He remembers the day he had to empty his treasured beach holiday apartment in the Western French town of Soulac-Sur-Mer. “Over 40 years, I could see that the dunes were disappearing one by one, as the sea was advancing,” the 87-year-old man recalls.

Perched precariously on top of a sand dune, the building Le Signal has become a symbol of the country’s coastal erosion. In 1978, when Guichet bought his first-floor apartment, he could not even see the ocean, hidden by dunes over 200 metres away. 

Today, the carcass of Le Signal stands less than ten metres from the waves. Its inhabitants were forcibly evacuated in 2014. Then began a seven-year battle to claim compensation from the state.

Despite being among the European countries most threatened by rising sea levels, France is lagging behind in tackling coastal erosion, a natural phenomenon exacerbated by climate change. While the neighboring Netherlands are a trailblazer in flood and erosion prevention, scientists and politicians worry about France’s lack of a national plan to mitigate the disappearance of its sandy beaches.

In the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region – Soulac-Sur-Mer’s region – a 2016 study found that the sandy coastline was disappearing at a rate of up to 2.5 metres per year.  According to the Aquitaine Coast Observatory, the shoreline could lose the equivalent of over 1,800 soccer fields by 2050. Yet, coastal erosion remains largely ignored by the law. And with it, the responsibility question: who, among the state, insurances, private owners or communities, will carry the costs?

A legislative void

It took the co-owners of Le Signal seven years to obtain financial compensation for the apartments they left behind. Coastal erosion is not recognized as a natural risk by the Barnier Fund, the nation-wide solidarity fund set up to compensate victims of natural hazards. Finally, on January 21st, it was announced that 7 million euros (around 8.4 million USD) would be divided among the 92 owners. However, this compensation would be exceptional, granted for this building only after years of lobbying and political pressure.

“Coastal erosion needs to be legally recognized,” stresses local councillor Pascale Got. In 2017, she elaborated a draft bill on coastal erosion and adaptation to climate change. “The bill presented some early legal tools to start establishing local, regional and national strategies for these issues,” she explains. 

Seeing the case of Le Signal as “a symbol of the legal void that leads us to take decisions only in an emergency”, Pascale Got pushed for an anticipatory approach to the climate crisis. 

One of the first articles of the draft bill aimed to integrate coastal erosion in the Barnier compensation fund. But the bill remained stuck in the Senate, and fell to the side with the presidential elections of 2017. 

Similar ideas were raised again in 2019 in an extensive report by an MEP of the new governing majority. Since then no major advances have been made – a sluggishness that alarms Pascale Got. “The political and administrative rhythms are not up to speed with climate change,” she says: “At some point, [someone] will have to pay.” 

A sea wall protects seaside houses in Biscarosse-plage, Nouvelle-Aquitaine. Photo: Observatoire de la Côte Aquitaine, Com’ by AVM, 2020

Redefining solidarity

But in a country historically attached to its strong welfare state, coastal erosion is putting national solidarity in question. “Who will pay for who?,” asks Marie-Laure Lambert, a professor and researcher in environmental law. In regions where houses by the sea can be sold for several millions, many worry about the cost to the taxpayer. 

“If someone already has a house, why would we reimburse their holiday house?,” Lambert asks jokingly. “In a context of climate change, I think there is no urgency to create solidarity for those who don’t necessarily need it. It has to go to the right people,” she adds.

Creative solutions abound at the local level. Pascale Got’s draft bill proposed a renovation of the concept of private property through temporary construction or property leases that would expire once the risk became too high. A few kilometres south of Soulac-Sur-Mer, the town of Lacanau has considered relocating part of its seaside area further inshore and demolishing the buildings at risk. 

But France lacks the legislative tools to support these initiatives. In Lacanau, the idea of relocation is set back by the lack of legal guidelines. “We do not know how to preventively destroy properties threatened by erosion,” reads the website of the GIP Littoral, an institution tasked with designing strategies for the adaptation of the coastline: “There is neither an obligation for the owner to do it, nor a mechanism for the public authorities.”

“We find ourselves in impossible situations, because nothing has been planned by the lawmakers,” laments Regional Councillor Vital Baude. In the meantime, local decision-makers focus on raising awareness among a constantly-increasing population: “It is better to warn people that in 30 years your house could not belong to you anymore. You will not pass it on to your children.”

For Jean-José Guichet, these projections have already become a reality. When he left his apartment in Le Signal in 2014, he asked his daughters, grand-daughters and great-grandchildren to be present. He wished to mark “the end of an era.”