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Mayoral race becomes a referendum on pesticide ban in French village of Langouët

Guillaume Houitte, a dairy farmer in Langouët, was inspired to go organic last year by the Breton village's ban on pesticides.
Guillaume Houitte, a dairy farmer in Langouët, was inspired to go organic last year by the Breton village's ban on pesticides. © Ségolène Allemandou, FRANCE 24

The mayor of tiny Langouët became a hero to environmentalists across France last year after unilaterally banning pesticides from his village. With his mandate up for grabs on Sunday, the election is being billed as a test for ecological activism in rural communities where farmers remain dependent on weedkillers. 

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The year is 2020 AD. Gaul is entirely occupied by pesticides. Well, not entirely… One small village of indomitable Gauls still holds out against the invaders. And life is not easy for the farmers who tend the fields surrounding the village.

Should “Asterix and the Organic Laurel Wreath” ever be written, it would take place here in Langouët, a tranquil Breton village not unlike the iconic hideout of Brittany’s most famous comic book hero.

Langouët, population 601, has neither shops nor post office. Instead, it has solar panels aplenty, a permaculture farm, an organic school canteen, and a worldwide reputation as the first French municipality to ban the use of pesticides near people’s homes – and the first to be dragged to court for doing so, by the French state to boot.

‘Output has shrunk, but I make more money’

Though Langouët’s ban on pesticides was ultimately quashed in court, some local farmers were inspired to go organic, ditching their chemical weedkillers and fertilisers. They include 39-year-old Guillaume Houitte, whose dairy farm sits on the edge of the village.

“Since then, output has shrunk from 440 million litres per year to just 300, but I make more money,” he says, trimming the hedges that protect his farm from the chemicals applied to neighbouring crops.

Critics say Langouët's ban on pesticides has driven a wedge between farmers in the village.
Critics say Langouët's ban on pesticides has driven a wedge between farmers in the village. © Ségolène Allemandou, FRANCE 24

Houitte is among the farmers who supported Daniel Cueff, Langouët’s longtime mayor, when he announced the ban in May of last year. The municipal ordinance banned the use of pesticides within 150 metres (450 feet) of any home or workplace, effectively putting most of the village off limits. 

Within weeks, Cueff’s move had inspired similar bans in a hundred communes across the country. And when the 65-year-old was taken to court in the Breton capital of Rennes, he was treated to a hero’s welcome by a crowd of more than one thousand.

‘Apparently, we kill people’

But not all residents of Langouët were happy with their mayor’s pioneering campaign. Many farmers who had not switched to organic produce were livid, protesting that they had not been consulted and that pesticides were necessary to keep weeds at bay.

“Some still haven’t got over the ordinance,” says Houitte, warning of a possible backlash when voters elect a new municipal council on March 15 and 22. While Cueff will not be seeking re-election after five consecutive terms, his associates in the outgoing municipal council are hoping to carry the torch. Houitte will back their ticket, dubbed “Désir d’avenir” (Longing for a better future), but he is worried they might lose their majority on the local council.

Across the road, the Morel family are still angry about the pesticide ban, which many farmers blame for a decline in crop yield. They’re also fed up with the media glare that has disrupted life in this normally peaceful corner of Brittany.

“Every day brings a new journalist, we’ve had enough!” sighs Mrs Morel at the entrance to her farm. Her estate uses integrated farming methods, combining natural and chemical pest control. “The village is full of hate now, apparently we kill people,” she shrugs, before walking off.

‘Driving a wedge between local farmers’

While the tension is palpable between supporters and opponents of the ban, other residents are keen to stay out of what they describe as “the conflict” or “the kerfuffle”. 

“In 20 years as mayor, Mr Cueff has done a lot to breathe new life into the village through ecology,” says a long-time resident who declines to give her name. But the pesticide ban “has upset non-organic farmers, who were scared for their livelihoods and were offered no help to adapt to the new rules”, she adds, blaming the mayor for “driving a wedge between local farmers”.

Dairy farmer Dominique Hamon says he was questioned by the police after someone sent them pictures of his wastewater-treatment machine, before the pesticide ban had been quashed in court.

“Can you imagine being denounced, in a small village like this?” says the 61-year-old, who ended up moving to a nearby village in order to get away from the “noxious atmosphere” in Langouët.

Dairy farmer Dominique Hamon was summoned by the police for flouting Langouët's ban on pesticides.
Dairy farmer Dominique Hamon was summoned by the police for flouting Langouët's ban on pesticides. © Ségolène Allemandou, FRANCE 24

Hamon says the mayor’s ordinance put too much pressure on farmers, leaving them “up against the wall”. Cueff “doesn’t realise that a distance of 150 metres is simply not applicable, that we’d lose a third of our income as a result", he explains. “Who will compensate us? And if these products are so dangerous, why do people keep on selling them?”

Government inaction

Farmers across France – many of them barely scraping a living – have come under scrutiny amid mounting public concern over pollution from weedkillers such as glyphosate, which the World Health Organisation has described as “probably carcinogenic”.

With green parties set to do well in this month’s municipal elections, following up on a strong showing in last year’s European polls, President Emmanuel Macron has been keen to burnish his ecological credentials – at one point saying of Cueff: “I support his intentions, though I can’t agree when the law isn’t respected."

Macron’s government has pushed for the European Union to gradually phase out glyphosate, which is found in Monsanto’s best-selling weedkiller RoundUp. But France is also one of Europe’s heaviest users of the herbicide, and the government’s reluctance to declare an outright ban has spurred some mayors to take matters into their own hands. 

In Langouët, the mayor decided to move after tests carried out on local residents showed very high levels of glyphosate – sometimes 30 times the recommended limit – in their urine. The highest levels were found among children.

Cueff’s decision to ban pesticides, without a vote, triggered a split in the municipal council. Some of his associates have since formed a rival ticket for the municipal elections, known as “Langouët Dynamique”. They include Jean-Pierre Goupil, a former deputy mayor, who declined FRANCE 24’s request for an interview, stating that the village had become an “amusement park”.

For his part, the outgoing mayor has opted to keep a low profile during the campaign, wary of turning the election into “a referendum for or against pesticides”. But he is far from done fighting the weedkillers.

Cueff, who now heads the French association of anti-pesticide mayors, is taking his case for a ban on chemical pesticides to the European Court of Justice later this year. And while he may not star in the next Asterix, he is publishing a book this month about his struggle. Its title is a plea to reconcile agriculture and ecology: “Farmers, we love you, please protect us”.

Langouët's Mayor Daniel Cueff addresses supporters outside a court in Rennes on August 22, 2019.
Langouët's Mayor Daniel Cueff addresses supporters outside a court in Rennes on August 22, 2019. Sébastien Salom-Gomis, AFP

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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