Mayor of a French flood village jailed for 4 years

By Thomas Schellenberger

On December 12, 2014, a French court sentenced the former mayor of a small seaside village to four years in prison for concealing flood risks that led to the death of 29 people in the storm Xynthia.

Let’s start the year with a legal story, the story of a small local policy that led to a great disaster and a very large trial.

In February 2010, Xynthia caused the death of 47 people and major damages in France (the cost is estimated at € 457 million of public funds and more than 1 billion euros for insurance companies). Generated by the combination of a storm and high tide, the marine submersion destroyed many dams, resulting in an unprecedented natural disaster in France. The village of La Faute-sur-Mer was the most severely affected with no less than 29 victims. It should be noted that in this village, a residential area was located just behind a dyke, but also and especially, in a depression exposed to extremely high flood risk. But the dam was too low and poorly monitored while it was prone to submersion. Thus, after the overflow, the waters rose high in the area where many houses were built on one level. Trapped residents found themselves particularly powerless at the time of the flood.

Although the February 2010 flooding was of an exceptional nature, one naturally wonders how this town could become so vulnerable. Can the mayor of La Faute-sur-Mer be liable for the consequences of this disaster? What about the flood prevention policy of the State? These are the questions that were asked the judges on December 12, 2014, following a complaint filed by the victims. Extraordinary for its duration (five weeks), the “Xynthia trial” is also exceptional in its verdict: 4 years imprisonment is by far the heaviest sentence ever issued against a mayor in France.

Schellen_compressedTo understand this decision, we need to explain that public officials may be guilty of manslaughter if they have committed a “serious fault that exposed others to a particularly serious risk that they could not ignore” (criminal code). In La Faute-sur-Mer, of course nobody could ignore the risk of flooding, especially not the mayor who exercised at the time its fourth consecutive term. According to the court, the serious fault of the Mayor is the result of three factors. First, the issuance of building permits in areas at risk was deemed as negligence in the performance of the municipal authority. Second, the mayor was convicted of leading a fierce political obstruction to the implementation by the State of a Flood Risks Prevention Plan (PPRI). Third, the judges emphasized that the mayor had deliberately concealed the risk of flooding to the people in order to preserve the economic attractiveness of the village. For these three reasons, the serious fault of the mayor was judged to be the direct cause of the damage, constituting manslaughter.

If the activities of the local authorities in La Faute-sur-Mer may seem grotesque, it is nevertheless indicative of broader weaknesses in the management of floods in France. The deficiencies of local democracy are revealed. Indeed, the personal enrichment of some local networks often aggravates the risk. In the case of La Faute-sur-Mer, the elected head of urban planning also ran a real estate development company. Thus, this dual function enabled her in the past to urbanize the most severely flooded areas, making significant economic benefits (a two-year prison sentence was pronounced against this local executive). Paradoxes in the decentralization of powers are also highlighted. Indeed, local authorities are seeking powers while denying their own liability, whereas at the same time, the State economically withdraws from the territories. In this context many coastal towns with a strong land pressure had led development policies comparable to that of La Faute-sur-Mer, negotiating sometimes compromisingly the risk of flooding with the State.

In France, Xynthia has not only caused a major flood, it was also a shock event in terms of flood management policy. With this judgment comes the aftershock that will make the French mayors shiver… at least until the appeal decision.

These are central issues in the study of the French flood management policy conducted within the STAR-FLOOD project. Although this project is not about marine submersion, this judgment illustrates perfectly the main issues of French policy when it comes to flood management: accelerating decentralization, economic withdrawal of the State and local democracy.