A French mayor stood trial on Thursday for unilaterally banning the use of pesticides around homes in his Breton village in a case supporters say could prove an “historic” turning point in their fight to limit the use of potentially harmful chemicals.
Daniel Cueff, independent mayor of Languouet, population 600, western France, issued a high-profile decree banning pesticides from 150 metres around homes and workplaces in May.
"It is legitimate for a mayor to take action when there is incompetence by the state," he declared. However, regional state authorities sued him for taking the law into his own hands.
Up to 1,000 supporters turned up to the trial Rennes on Thursday brandishing banners against pesticides.
Mr Cueff has fought a 20-year battle to improve the local environment, previously banning chemical weedkiller and opening an organic school canteen in 2004.
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He said he had acted after complaints from locals about the potentially harmful effects of crop spraying, saying tests had shown dozens of children had "very high levels" of the glyphosate, a controversial weedkiller, in their urine.
France has been outspoken in pushing for an EU-wide ban on the substance, present in the best-selling weedkiller Roundup sold by multinational Monsanto and described by the World Health Organization as "probably carcinogenic."
But the country is one of the European Union’s heaviest users of the herbicide and increased its use of pesticides in general by 12 per cent between 2014 and 2016.
Local non-organic farmers complained they had not been consulted about the ban and insisted there were no alternatives to keep weeds at bay.
Regional state authorities then challenged the decree on the grounds that the mayor had no power to ban pesticides as a precautionary measure as this was a state prerogative.
There were no “particular local circumstances” to warrant such a move and there was no “imminent danger", the state’s lawyers added.
In court, Mr Cueff asked: “What is the power of a mayor? Can a mayor ignore the health of his inhabitants?”
He cited a 2009 EU directive obliging member states to protect their inhabitants from pesticide use, recently upheld by France’s Council of State.
Upholding the ban would be, he added, “following the course of history”.
It was backed by an “unprecedented grassroots movement” among the local and wider population, he said, citing an Ifop poll suggesting 96 per cent of French supported the ban.
The court case has embarrassed the Macron government, which is struggling to convince the French of its green credentials.
"We have been working on… how to better protect residents from the spraying of pesticides," environment minister Elisabeth Borne told RTL radio, saying there would be a consultation on the matter "very soon".
"The mayor is right about one thing: we have to better protect residents from the spraying of pesticide".
But she insisted that it was unacceptable for local officials to take the law into their own hands.
A bill authorising such local measures against pesticides is due to be passed next year.
But the mayor’s lawyer Arnaud Delomel said: “For 15 years, the state has said it’s going to do something and hasn’t done it. Do we need to hit the wall before we wake up?”
Around 20 mayors have issued decrees limiting or banning the use of pesticides in the past two years. It was not immediately clear if any had seen their action overturned in the courts.
A ruling is due early next week.