French President Emmanuel Macron spent this Thursday in Chamonix and St Gervais discussing the impact of climate change and overcrowding on Mont Blanc and its Massif, proclaiming 2020 to be a "decisive" year for environmental protection. Gendarmes lined the streets en masse in what was an unusual spectacle for the lively alpine town.
During his visit, the President described the fight for biodiversity as "a fight for our own survival" and officially launched a new agency, the French Office of Biodiversity (OFB). Macron visited the vanishing Mer de Glace glacier, which has become an international symbol of global warming's impact.
"What we see with this glacier melting is irrefutable evidence of global warming," Macron said. The glacier - the largest in France - has lost more than 65 metres in depth and 300 metres in length since 1996. The President attended a dinner with climate scientists from CREA Mont Blanc, a high-altitude ecosystem research centre in Chamonix, at the Refuge du Montenvers above the Mer de Glace.
Mer de Glace, 1910-2020.— Emmanuel Macron (@EmmanuelMacron) February 13, 2020
Voilà pour quoi nous nous battons. pic.twitter.com/BVr99M7UjZ
Macron on Twitter: 'This is what we're fighting for."
Although some associate Chamonix with fresh Alpine air, the reality is different: air pollution is reaching critical levels here, to the extent that children are banned from outdoor play at school due to the veil of smog sitting in the Valley. In peak periods, Chamonix can welcome up to 100,000 visitors per day. This high volume of traffic and footfall has increased pollutants from vehicules in town and those passing through the Tunnel du Mont Blanc to and from Italy, in addition to the thick smoke emitted by wood fires and pollution from Arve Valley industries.
As part of a range of new policies concerning biodiversity and the environment, the French President pledged to create a protected nature reserve around Mont Blanc to limit numbers and prevent overcrowding, particularly in the peak summer period. In his speech delivered in Chamonix, Macron mentioned visible results of plans outlined last April to reduce emissions from wood-burning stoves and transport, specific to the valley. Local ministers had mobilised funds to tackle the issue and educate citizens about the climate crisis, the President said, but he did not elaborate on the specific measures taken.
Electric buses have gradually been replacing fossil fuel models in Chamonix since 2017, and log fires will be banned in the Arve and Chamonix valleys from 2022. On the back of Macron's visit, 160 million Euros have been agreed to install a trainline between St Gervais and La Roche-sur-Foron, to open up connections to Geneva and other major cities.
In September 2018, the mayor of St Gervais, Jean-Marc Peillex, wrote a letter to President Macron imploring him to take action in protecting the mountain environment, with an emphasis on managing Mont Blanc. "It is all well and good to worry about the Amazon rainforest, but to ignore what is happening on Mont Blanc and to allow this disrespect to continue is intolerable," he wrote, referencing the accidents and deaths involving ill-prepared and publicity-seeking "oddball" climbers and inexperienced novices, as well as the tensions at height between guides and mountaineers, and waste issues on the peak.
Mr Peillex has frequently intervened in activities on the mountain, which can attract over 30,000 summit attempts annually, in addition to rowing machines and bloody-pawed dogs. In 2017, he imposed a minimum equipment by-law concerning climbers on the Goûter route, and he has frequently threatened closure of the refuge if measures are not taken to control the risks of overcrowding. In 2018, access restrictions were imposed on the mountain, stating that only climbers with pre-booked accommodation at the Goûter hut would be granted access by a "brigade blanche" patrolling the peak.
In a UKC interview in July 2018, Mr Peillex summed up international efforts by the three countries concerned by the Massif - Switzerland, Italy and France - to find a solution to the issues as a "pseudo-co-operation" consisting of langue de bois (stonewalling, doublespeak). He also criticised politicians for prioritising vested interests in the Valley:
"Access today is not regulated because the State and some "politicians" want to believe in the idea of an area of freedom in order to protect a very lucrative business for the few (travel agencies...)"
In Macron's future vision of Mont Blanc, initial rules for accessing the protected area will require climbers to provide evidence of pre-climb preparation, to respect a minimum equipment by-law and show proof of hut bookings. The effect of these proposals on independent, unguided mountaineers is as yet unclear, but given the similarities to Mr Peillex's previous interventions, it is possible that the hut restrictions will not apply to those summitting in a day - although restrictions on daily numbers will still likely affect one-day ascents - as he explained in the UKC interview:
'Of course, the requirement of a reservation at the Goûter refuge concerns only those mountaineers who climb with a stop at the Goûter hut. Those who leave early to climb Mont Blanc in a day are not concerned in these restrictions.'
During a session of engagement with local people in St Gervais, where many Brits have holiday homes, there was an exchange on Brexit in which the President assured that British people 'are welcome here.'
President Macron's visit has drawn attention to the environmental issues in the Chamonix Valley and the Mont Blanc Massif as a whole, but some locals are sceptical that concrete measures against pollution will be put into place and perceive it as pre-election "greenwashing." Chamonix resident and mountain guide Danny Uhlmann told UKC: 'Let's see if his words turn in actions. But it's a decent start, and it's never too late. I think that local politics here is changing, and with a new group of people running for mayor, who favour action to reduce pollution and make Chamonix more of a beacon of action in terms of climate change, his visit seems welcome.'
Creative director Katie Moore, who has lived in the Chamonix valley for nearly twenty years, commented: 'I think it's a good thing that he came as it put the climate issue onto the front pages, especially at a time when the glacier is visibly suffering, which wouldn't normally be the case in February. He spoke to some of the best people who wouldn't have been economical with the facts, such as Luc Moreau, a glaciologist and head of CREA. The proposed trainline extension is a positive step. But we'll see what comes of it.'
'The incinerator in Chedde [in the highly polluted Arve Valley] was not running when he was here, strangely enough - and there seem to be so many political obstacles to effecting real change. Whenever anyone tries to change anything in France, half the country goes on strike so any big ideas are so hard to get through. But I think it shows that he is making climate issues a priority, and wanted to come and see for himself - which can only be positive. I'm also not aware of any other president visiting other than for a photo call, and taking the time to consult with people at the heart of issues, so I think it was more than just a PR exercise.'