A new law passed in February 2023 has had the effect of criminalizing open access to land where that land is private property. Anyone found breaking the law can be fined 135 €. Article 226-4-3 states that it is now illegal “to enter without authorization into a private rural or forest property without authorization”. It seems that France is returning to a sort of medieval feudalism nearly a century after UK citizens gained access to wilderness following the Kinder Scout mass trespass and the recent battles to bivouac on Dartmoor.
The law was passed as an environmental measure. Previously a landowner had to fence in his land and any trespass was considered a civil matter and a landowner could only ask offenders to leave. The fences were a problem in certain parts of France, especially with private game reserves, as they restricted the movement of wildlife. The new law, as well as criminalizing access, says that a landowner no longer has to fence his land but merely display a sign warning people that the land is private. The fact that it is now being used to restrict access where traditionally ramblers were able to roam is claimed to be an unforeseen side effect.
Does this have any practical impact in the real world? Most land in France is privately owned: forests, farm lands, mountain pastures and summits. There is very little communal land. Even before the law has been confirmed in the French upper house (senate) a battle royal is brewing down in the Chartreuse regional nature park. The area is popular with ramblers in the summer and with ski tourers and snowshoers in the winter. However the northern plateau and eastern ramparts are owned by the Marquis de Quinsonas. In terms of noble titles Marquis ranks just below Duc but we are talking about post revolutionary France where titles have not had official recognition since 1870. Bizarrely everyone still uses these formalities with much cap coffing and curtseying.
Credit: David George/wikimedia commons
Conflicts with the Marquis go back about 20 years to the discovery of a unique “double arch”, the Tour Percée, by the author Pascal Sombardier. Pascal published a book highlighting his find which increased tourism to the area. It even has its own wikipedia page complete with stunning photos. The Marquis rents his lands out to a hunting association which then organizes “safaris” for hunters from as far afield as China and Moscow. Of particular interest is the Capra World Slam; a challenge to hunt and shoot mountain goats all over the world. The difficult slopes of the Chartreuse are particularly prized. Hunters will pay thousands of euros for the chance of such a trophy. A lucrative business.
Another peculiarity is the laws of the land don’t appear to apply to the noble Marquis’ terrain. Hunting in France is controlled with the breeding season being out of bounds to hunters. In the minds of the wider public it is believed that hunting is illegal when there is snow on the ground. Not so on private lands where hunting is permitted all year round. The winter months are interesting as hunted animals can’t run as fast in the snow making them an easier target and are easier to find after being shot. However this brings the hunters into conflict with ski tourers.
The main access to the High Chartreuse Plains is via the Alpe du Seuil pass. A steep couloir leads down from this pass. Long known to local ski tourers but since the rise of social media it has become very popular. Too popular. Winter travelers have pushed on to other lesser known descents: The Ragris, The Charrasons even as far as the mythical Tour Percée itself. All on the Marquis’ private hunting grounds. Surprising though it may seem last winter ski tourers crossed hunters in thigh deep snow and 50 degree slopes that surround the Tour. On that occasion the gamekeeper told the skiers that they had the intention of turning the screws on anyone trespassing on the land. Given the number of hunting deaths in France (over four hundred in the last two decades including runners and mountain bikers) one can only imagine the drama of a stray bullet or a hunter mistaking a skier for a mountain goat.
Even laws like common assault don’t seem to apply. When a couple of walkers happened across a hunting party in June 2021 tempers soon frayed with the gamekeeper punching one of the walkers in the face. The scene was filmed by the other walker on her mobile phone. A complaint was lodged with the Gendarmerie who recognized the assault took place but decided not to proceed with the prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence, despite the video! The two gamekeepers have even applied to have police powers under the new law.
Since the passing of 226-4-3 the Marquis has surrounded his estate with private property signs. Equipment for climbing routes has been removed by the hunters including to the mysterious “Roman Inscription” carved into the cliffs. The GR9 long distance trail, which runs from the Jura to the Mediterranean sea has been re-routed into the valley to avoid the disputed territory. The Park Authorities have said it is purely coincidental, that there is not enough water on the plateau for walkers but it is hard to believe that the Marquis didn’t put pressure on the authorities. The old GR9 will still be a right of way but obviously the hope is that fewer people will take the route. Signposting has already been changed. In the same vein a motorway “brown” information panel that featured the Tour Percée has been removed from the A41 autoroute. It seems the old aristos still have some clout. Contacted about the changes the Regional Park authorities responded “the Marquis can do what he likes on his land”.
Mr de Quinsonas defends the restrictions saying that the increase in visitors, both winter and summer, was detrimental to the wildlife. The aulp du Seuil, the High Plains, Charrasons and Ragris couloirs have been popular with summer walkers for a long time but it is true that the more obscure routes such as the Tour Percée and cliff paths were only known to hunters in the past. The access to the Tour Percée has gone from a wild and unmarked scramble 20 years ago to a defined walking path today, witness to the number of visitors. Ecology group Mountain Wilderness have backed de Quinsonas claims of “overtourism”.
Aulp du Seuil Plateau from the summit of the Lances des Mallisards
Similarly in winter the High Plains, Lances des Mallisards, Bellefont Dome and aulp du Seuil have long seen some ski touring and snowshoe traffic but the rise in popularity of ski touring coupled with amazing photos posted on social media has vastly increased the number of winter travelers. Remember, the hunting grounds are open all year round. There have already been conflicts between skiers and hunters at the aulp du Seuil - in the future only the main path via the aulp du Seuil pass will remain accessible and one wonders if a cohabitation between hunters and backcountry travelers is possible or advisable.
The conflict has become something of a cause celebre. A petition launched at the start of September has been signed by over 18,000 signatures and has attracted the attention of the national media. Locals demand under what right of natural law the Marquis has to block access to a high mountain plateau on lands he simply inherited and which were acquired under the Ancien Régime if not before. Inspired by the Kinder Scout trespass in 1932 there is talk of organizing a mass protest to reclaim the area for walkers. Nature enthusiasts also have difficulty in accepting the wildlife protection argument when hunters can kill animals such as mountain goats (chamois) and rock ptarmigan all year round. The chamois was nearly extinct in the Chartreuse in the 1980s and there are controls on entering rock ptarmigan breeding grounds all over the Chartreuse and beyond to preserve the species. Between these two groups is the Parc naturel régional de Chartreuse who probably don’t favour the hunting lobby (remember that French hunters have their down political party that has received over 4% of the national vote in presidential elections although in 2017 it backed Macron) and a powerful landowner but at the same time are not that keen on people tramping willy-nilly over their Parc Naturel given the number of restrictions that have been put in place over the last decade. The president of the Parc, Dominique Escaron, has suggested charging walkers 40 € to enter "like they do in the USA". The Marquis is probably an ally of fortune for the Parc but that was before the public anger at what many see as throwback to feudalism.