Is Mont-Saint-Michel Washed Up? for $40 Million, a French Engineer Cries 'non'

updated 04/20/1981 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/20/1981 01:00AM

Mont-Saint-Michel, a grand historic hunk of granite with a monastery on top, sits more than a mile off the Normandy coast of France. From the Dark Ages ferocious tides surged into the bay twice a day and turned the rock into a majestic instant island. But now, after a century of mankind's meddling with nearby rivers and dikes, the bay has become clogged with sand, the tides have lost their oomph and as a result Mont-Saint-Michel—one of France's most popular tourist attractions—is becoming high and dry. As the tides recede, so too will the tourist trade that helps keep the region afloat.

Thanks to a Paris-based civil engineer, Jean Doulcier, 52, there may be a solution, but it could cost around $40 million. The French government initially agreed to pick up half the tab—but regional authorities have been reluctant to cough up their share. Local Norman farmers and brawny Breton fishermen plan to meet this month to determine how much they're willing to spend. But nobody expects any action until after the May 10 presidential elections—if at all. "If Saint-Michel isn't saved within five years, it will become dead," says a dejected Doulcier. "Its charm would be extinguished."

Father Bruno de Senneville, head of the monastery on the rock, is a Benedictine who spends much of his day in meditative silence. On this issue, however, he is loud and clear: "The French are ungovernable," he grumbles. "They can't seem to accept that beauty on this earth is not a cheap commodity."

Or simple to preserve. Doulcier, together with his wife, Hélène, and their five children, studied old maps and records in the medieval abbey's library. Doulcier then supervised a complex research program using a 7,000-square-foot model of the bay to simulate the impact of 11,000 tides and predict its murky future. They found that dikes and a causeway connecting the continent to "the Rock," as it is known, have allowed sand to build up, reducing the force of the tides. So the Doulcier research, financed by the Ministry of Environment, points to destroying a dike almost two miles away, which would allow the Sée and Sélune rivers to resume their natural courses toward the Rock. In addition, reservoirs, floodgates and locks might someday be built to hold back water and then release it in a flood to wash the sand out to sea.

Not everyone in the region believes in the Doulcier plan. Raymonde Lebrune, whose husband Edmond runs the local airport, observes, "It's expensive, and there's no guarantee it will work wonders."

For sure, the mount has been surrounded by magic and myth for centuries. In 708 the Archangel Michael is said to have appeared in a vision to Aubert, the bishop of nearby Avranches, and instructed him to build a shrine on the rock. As legend has it, Mont-Saint-Michel was then surrounded by forests, which were swept away by tremendous tides. In the 11th century monks built a spectacular Romanesque church out of the native granite and then in the 13th century added an elegant Gothic monastery atop the 250-foot-high rock. The tides made the island a fortress too tough for the English to conquer in the Hundred Years' War (1337-1453) and, later, a prison too remote to escape from during the French Revolution. Today the tides attract well over a million tourists annually. They still come to see the sea rise (at one time by as much as 45 feet) and to buy T-shirts, gargoyles and cans of ocean air. "It's romantic with just sand," said a recent Canadian visitor, "but I'd anticipated more."

"If there are higher tides, there will be more tourists," says business-minded Father Bruno, who would like to see tourists from America and elsewhere contribute to the cause.

Doulcier grew up in Montpellier, in southern France, and earned degrees from Paris' prestigious Ecole Poly-technique. For years he worked on Cultural Affairs Minister André Malraux's massive monuments restoration program and specialized in renovating inland waterways. He and his brother Pierre now have a firm of their own, working on environmental projects all over France. Doulcier predicts that even if his blueprint were followed, the overwhelming tides might not return until 1990, and in the next century nature probably would once again begin to fill the bay with sand. "But doing something today," he argues, "will at least enable my great-grandchildren to witness one of the most remarkable phenomena on earth."

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