Rural France Takes on Shale Gas, and Wins

“What size knife should I bring?”

I’m at a town hall meeting in Saint-Marcel-lès-Sauzet, France. The question comes from a woman to my right. She’s sixtyish, grey haired, and sporting the classic French style of striped sweater and neckerchief . She looks like your Grandma, if your Grandma lived in the rural French countryside and baked you clafoutis. The knife she’s inquiring about is for the tires of a gas company’s truck. Should one of these trucks arrive on her cobblestone streets, this petite and chic Grandmère is ready and willing to put her body on the line. Human chains and tire-slashing are being rapidly discussed in this group of concerned (and mostly senior) citizens.

It’s already happened once. In Avignon, a village an hour south by train, a Total truck rolled up in the middle of the night. Fifteen minutes later, a crowd of angry villagers armed with knives and pitchforks had arrived to block the energy company’s prospectors. They were willing to lay their bodies down to protect their countryside from the environmental hazards created by shale gas (aka gaz de schiste) exploitation.

Saint-Marcel-lès-Sauzet boasts a population of a little over a thousand. Nestled in the Rhône-Alpes region of France, it lies just 290 km from the yachts of Saint-Tropez and a two-hour drive from the beginnings of the Alps. The streets are still lined with cobblestone and a stone-washing basin still marks the centre of town. Its two main industries are tourism and agriculture. In the summer, the village overflows with retired couples who come to sample the fine wine and traditional picadon cheese the region is famed for. Both the tourism and the fine wine that draws them are currently facing a new threat – shale gas drilling in the villagers’ backyards.

In 2010, European energy companies such as Total E&P France, Schuepbach Energy LLC, Mouvoil SA and Bridgeoil SAS, signed contracts with then French ecology minister, Jean Louis Booloo. The contracts either granted each company the right to begin surveying parcels of land for natural gas extraction or the immediate mining rights for the next three to five years. At the time, there was little to no public consultation held in the effected areas. As a result, most citizens learned of the Federal government’s signing off on their land six months after the fact, when the Ecological Party (Europe Ecologie les Verts), and environmental organizations such as les Amis de la Terre began holding informational sessions to discuss the contracts with the people who lived on the land destined for drilling.

Each information session showed a clip of Josh Fox’s ‘Gasland’, an American documentary that details the disastrous environmental and health effects of shale gas extraction. A relatively new process of natural gas mining, horizontal hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) is designed to exploit small pockets of natural gas and extend the life of previously existing wells by using a combination of water pressure, sand and proprietary chemicals to release the gas by fracturing the shale. The process uses between 80 and 300 different chemicals. The danger lies in the chemicals used. Improper disposable or cracking wells can lead to contaminated water supplies, leaving residents with undrinkable tap water. This water contamination has already lead to several lawsuits in the States.

The French are hoping to avoid fracking, along with its health damages and lawsuits. After the contracts came to light, citizens quickly organized informal activist groups (collectifs) for each region. The collectifs placed pressure on municipal and federal politicians to repeal the contracts and ban fracking through day-long demonstrations, petitions, and poster campaigns. 18 thousand protesters came out to the first demonstration in the Ardèche region; a staggering show of support for a town of just 3 thousand.

The regions surrounding Saint-Marcel-les-Sauzet, are no stranger to resistance. The area played a large part in France’s Nazi resistance movement; it’s mountainous ranges making for natural hiding spots. France’s governing structure also lends itself easily to public participation. The 22 regions that make up the country are partitioned into 96 departments, 330 arrondissements, 3,883 cantons and 36,569 communes. Saint-Marcel-les-Sauzet is one commune of many. The village has monthly town meetings and a free local newspaper named le Dauphine, both of which dutifully discuss anything from the appointment of a new village postmaster to political rallies. As a result, active citizens have a variety of outlets to make themselves heard. In a town of 1000, it is not hard to put pressure on the Mayor. Especially when you’re running in to him at your local market.

That’s exactly what Odette Henri did. Henri, 52, is the head organizer of the Saint-Marcel collectif. She circulated a petition and rallied other concerned citizens to attend local council meetings, convincing the Mayor to pass a law banning the use of local water for shale gas extraction and placing a weight limitation that effectively prohibited any trucks needed for extraction or construction from using local roadways.

As the resistance movement grew, Paris began to sit up and take notice. Prominent environmental activist and politician, José Bové, joined the fight and a bloc of Mayors and Department Heads from the regions affected began to petition parliament on their citizens’ behalf. On April 6th, 2011, the French Prime Minister, François Fillon, extended a moratorium on the shale gas contracts until June. The ecological minister who originally signed the contracts stepped down and, on October 11th 2011, France’s Parliament announced an annulment of all shale gas contracts with a specific reference to resistance in the South-West.

Despite the success, the movement remains vigilant. Antoine Combier, a coordinator for the Ardèche collectif, notes that the sanctions placed on shale gas extraction remain ambiguous. While the current government passed legislation banning natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing, the bill still allows companies to survey the land for possible extraction. “There’s no other way for them to exploit shale gas, so what do they need to survey for?” queries Combier.

As the citizens exchange cell-phone numbers for a watch group in case another Total truck roles up in the center of town, the lady beside me leans over and whispers in my ear “They never back down, so neither do we.”

Total declined to comment for this story.

A version of this story will be published in Herizons, Spring 2012 edition.