The mayor of the world-famous Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy was handed a six-month suspended sentence and fined 30,000 euros on Wednesday for positioning a bus stop so that millions of tourists would pass by his shops and restaurants. Mont Saint-Michel is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the world.
Eric Vannier, who has been mayor of the historic district since 1983 – save for between 2001 and 2008 – owns around 80% of the businesses on the mount and 20% on the adjoining coast, earning him some 29 million euros a year.
The lawsuit came about through a longstanding rivalry between the 60-year-old mayor and his predecessor, Patrick Gaulois, also 60, who filed a complaint against Vannier for unfair competition.
In 2012 the local tourist board – of which Vannier is a member – closed down a car park at the foot of the mount and opened 4,000 parking spaces on the mainland as a way to “improve the appearance” of the tourist sight, which attracts between 2.5 and 3.5 million people per year.
A shuttle service was put in place to ferry tourists between the inland car park and the mount, but instead of placing the bus stop at the car park, it was built almost a kilometre away, forcing tourists to walk past a number of shops and restaurants owned by Vannier before getting on the bus.
Code of silence
Vannier said the decision was made for economic reasons, arguing that building the bus stop closer to the peninsula would save the council 10 million euros and each tourist €1.50 per fare. “I was acting purely in the public interest,” Vannier told the court on Wednesday. He had said previously that the claims against him “made no sense” because he also owns establishments by the new car park.
The trial was closely watched by Vannier’s commercial and political rival, Gaulois, who filed the initial complaint. Gaulois was mayor between 2001 and 2008, and owns three restaurants and one sandwich shop on the mount, making him Vannier’s main competition.
His complaint against Vannier was the fifth of its kind. Speaking about the case in an interview with AFP, Gaulois said that nobody dared confront Vannier. “There’s a code of silence on the mount. Nobody dares talk about it,” he said.
In September, Vannier filed his own complaint against Gaulois, counter-accusing him of unfair competition by trying to have the bus stop moved closer to his own establishments.
Vannier’s lawyer described Wednesday’s sentencing as “extremely heavy”.