French roosters now crow with the law behind them

After a series of high-profile disputes in rural areas, the French Parliament has passed a bill that enshrines countryside smells and sounds as protected national heritage. PHOTO: NYTIMES

PARIS (NYTIMES) - The crow of a rooster and the ringing of a church bell at dawn. The rumble of a tractor and the smell of manure wafting from a nearby stable. The deafening song of cicadas or the discordant croaking of frogs. Quacking ducks, bleating sheep and braying donkeys.

Perennial rural sounds and smells such as these were given protection by French law last week, when lawmakers passed a Bill to preserve "the sensory heritage of the countryside" after a series of widely publicised neighbourhood spats in France's rural corners, many of them involving noisy animals.

In a nation still attached to its agrarian roots and to its terroir - a deep sense of place tied to the land - the disputes symbolised tensions between urban newcomers and longtime country dwellers, frictions that have only grown as the coronavirus pandemic and a string of lockdowns draw new residents to the countryside.

"Life in the countryside means accepting some nuisances,"Mr Joel Giraud, the French government's junior minister in charge of rural life, said Thursday (Jan 21).

It would be illusory, he said, to idealise the countryside as a picture-perfect haven of tranquility.

Perhaps the most prominent of these noisy animals was Maurice, a rooster in Saint-Pierre-d'Oleron, a town on an island off France's western coast. His owner had been sued by neighbours - regular vacationers in the area - because he crowed too loudly.

Politicians and thousands of petitioners rushed to the Gallic rooster's defence, and a court eventually ruled in 2019 that Maurice, who died last summer at the age of 6, was well within his rights.

"Our rural territories are not just sceneries; they are also sounds, smells, activities and practices that are part of our heritage," Mr Giraud told lawmakers in the French Senate. "New country dwellers aren't always used to it."

The Bill was passed by the National Assembly, France's lower house of Parliament, in January 2020. In a rare show of parliamentary and political unity, the Senate unanimously passed an unamended version of the Bill Thursday.

"The goal is to give elected officials a toolbox," said Mr Pierre-Antoine Levi, a centrist senator who helped draft the Bill, arguing that mayors were being caught in the middle of a growing number of neighbourhood disputes.

To name but a few recent cases: In Dordogne, a region of south-west France, a court ordered a couple to drain their pond after neighbours complained about incessant frog croaking; in Alsace, in eastern France, a court ruled that a horse had to stay at least 50 feet (15m) from the neighbouring property after people grumbled about smelly droppings and droves of flies; in Le Beausset, a small village in southern France, residents were shocked when tourists complained about the singing of cicadas. (The mayor responded last year by installing a 6-foot statue of one.)

In one of the more tragic cases, more than 100,000 petitioners clamored for justice last year after Marcel, a rooster in Ardeche, in south-eastern France, was shot and beaten to death by a neighbour infuriated by its crowing. The man later received a five-month suspended prison sentence.

The new law tweaks France's environmental code to say that the "sounds and smells" of France's natural spaces are an integral part of its legally defined "shared heritage." And it urges local administrations to draw up an inventory of their areas' "sensory heritage," to give newcomers a better sense of what to expect.

The law does not carry any specific penalties or create a list of specifically protected sounds or smells, but Mr Levi, who represents Tarn-et-Garonne, a mostly rural area of south-western France, said it would give mayors more authority to smooth over disputes before they ended up in court and would give judges a firmer legal footing to settle the cases that reached them.

"This law doesn't mean that farmers are going to be able to do whatever they please," he said. "The idea is to create a code of good conduct."

It is too late for Maurice. But his successor, Maurice II, can now crow with the full-throated confidence of someone who has the law on his side.

Ms Corinne Fesseau, his owner, told France 2 television this past week that she was thrilled by the new law. "The city has its noises," she said. "So does the countryside."

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