"Stop concrete, no to the construction of a basilica in St-Pierre-de-Colombier".
The sign planted at the edge of the road sets the tone from the entrance sign to this town in the Monts d'Ardèche, 430 inhabitants.
Below flows the Bourges, a pretty river which supplied the silk mills. A few abandoned buildings still tell the story.
A brand new footbridge leads, higher up, from a bus turnaround area, currently being developed, to a site where a backhoe loader is parked.
It is here that the Missionary Family of Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (FMND) intends to finalize its "religious complex" financed by donations: a chapel with two spires of 50 meters and a reception building with 40 rooms for pilgrims attracted by the annual procession to the white statue of the Virgin which dominates the place.
The project is far from unanimous. The town hall issued the building permit in 2018, the work began in 2019 and was then suspended in October 2020 by the prefecture for a more in-depth environmental study. In March 2021, the bishop of Viviers (Ardèche) also prohibited the construction of the chapel given "the disproportionate aspect of the project (3.500 places, 18 million euros)".
The case rebounds at the end of November 2022 when the prefect authorizes the resumption of work after a new impact study. A decree that the association "For the safeguard of the Bourges valley" (95 members) will contest on February 20 before the administrative court of Lyon.
In question: "insincerity" and "partiality" of the study, according to Pierrot Pantel, kingpin of the National Association for Biodiversity.
The new version concludes, in fact, with a "negligible" impact for the protected species and habitat. Nine months earlier, she spoke of a real, albeit "weak" impact. The nuance is important: it exempts the FMND from a request for derogation, granted only in the event of an imperative reason of major public interest - difficult to justify in this specific case... The Naturalia research firm did not responded to requests from AFP.
But for the congregation, there is no doubt: "Behind the environmental motive of the opponents, hides an ideological motive", assures Brother Clément-Marie, in the old parish house, in beautiful local stones, where the FMND has its headquarters.
Four other buildings shelter this community of 50 people – 30 sisters, 20 brothers – that we inevitably come across in the streets, where the facades of houses acquired by the "friends" bear religious signs.
Daniel Calichon, retired teacher and member of the association of opponents, denounces "a lead screed on the village" and "a problem of democracy".
He notes the weight of the FMND in the electoral lists - 115 registered, out of a total of 397 voters, according to community figures. The law authorizes, in fact, the registration of religious living in scattered households - the FMND has 17 of them - at the headquarters of their congregation. "Legal, but not moral...", squeaks Mr. Calichon.
"We are not second-class citizens, I have lived here for 25 years!" replies Brother Clément-Marie.
Mayor Gérard Fargier, reappointed in 2020 for a fourth term, refutes any "submission" to a religious "lobby". Above all, he retains the "economic impact" of the community, even if he can only "observe a divided village".
A telecom retiree opposed to the construction site, Jean-Claude Audigier, says for example that he had to leave the local hiking association with his wife "because we were turning away from us".
"This situation pains us, we are for the peace of the village, we absolutely do not harm its tranquility, I do not understand this relentlessness...", regrets Brother Bernard, the head of the community founded on December 15, 1946.
Basically, this story "is that of a cultural tension between two visions of the world", concludes Sylvain Herenguel, of the association.
At the origin of the foundation of the community, the statue of Notre-Dame des Neiges was built at the request of parishioners of the village: Saint-Pierre-de-Colombier having been spared by the Germans during the War, we had to thank this grace.