La Barben: the Prefect supports Rocher Mistral and is overruled by the Council of State

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1. The path forbidden to cars, in the background the illegal car park, used despite the obstacles (the cars went through the zoo car park), Wednesday 8 May 2024
Photo: La Tribune de l’Art
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How far will the public authorities go to defend the indefensible in the never-ending case of the Château de La Barben transformed into an amusement park under the name of Rocher Mistral? After the Minister Delegate for Tourism Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne, who came to give a laudatory speech at the park’s inauguration (see article), after the considerable financial support given to the project by the Bouches-du-Rhône département and the Provence-Alpes-Côte-d’Azur region (see article), it is now the Prefect Christophe Mirmand who is trying to come to the rescue of the company whose practices his own departments have repeatedly denounced. As for the support given to Vianney d’Alançon by the sub-prefect of the Aix-en-Provence district, Bruno Cassette, this no longer comes as a surprise: the two men are on a first-name basis.

Rocher Mistral was convicted at first instance of a large number of offences (see article). Even though he has appealed, which suspends the sentences, this makes the Prefect’s behaviour all the more incomprehensible, especially when he comes to ask for the reopening of a path that leads to the car park banned by the Prefecture and for which Rocher Mistral has been sentenced (ill. 1)! On 6 July 2023, the mayor issued a decree banning all vehicular traffic on this road. Of course, this didn’t stop Rocher Mistral from ignoring the order and keeping its unauthorised car park accessible via a prohibited path. That’s the rule now: administrative or judicial decisions don’t matter, Vianney d’Alançon doesn’t care. Nevertheless, on 18 March, with the illegal car park still in use, the mayor installed barriers on the path to prevent motorised vehicles from accessing it. So what did Rocher Mistral do? Of course, he rushed to build another car park, which was no more authorised, at one of the locations planned for the extension of his theme park.
Another municipal decree, dated 23 April 2024, logically forbade Rocher Mistral to receive the public in the garden ‘known as Le Nôtre’ (which has nothing to do with Le Nôtre), on the terrace and in the ‘ruins’ next to the Château de La Barben. The infrastructure was just as irregular as the car park. He of course sat on this decree and the shows continued there.

2. The rocks and barriers preventing access to the path leading to the illegal car park, used on 8 May 2024 to cope with the crowds, with cars having passed through the zoo car park.
Photo: La Tribune de l’Art
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But in the meantime, on 26 March 2024, the sub-prefect Bruno Cassette had sent an ex gratia appeal requesting the removal of the ‘bollards’, ‘barriers’ and other rocks that were obstructing traffic and preventing access to the illegal car park (ill. 2). He gave various reasons for this, including safety. On 9 April, the mayor, through his lawyer, replied in detail, taking apart his arguments one by one and refusing his request.
On 7 May, the prefect, Christophe Mirmand, came to the rescue of Rocher Mistral, by applying to the Marseille administrative court to suspend the municipal order. We won’t go into all the arguments put forward by the Prefect here, as that would bore the reader. However, one of them deserves a closer look, because it is astonishing, coming from the representative of the State.

He explains that the mayor’s order ‘interferes with freedom of trade and industry and freedom of movement’. In fact: ‘the ban on traffic on the Chemin de La Baou means that access to the car park belonging to the Rocher Mistral company is no longer possible. This car park allows customers to park in order to go to the leisure and entertainment park ‘Le Rocher Mistral’, operated by the same company’.
Preventing a company that has been convicted (even if it has appealed), whose installations are irregular on a considerable number of points, and whose car park is illegal, from using this car park is therefore, for the Prefect, an ‘infringement of the freedom of trade and industry’. You really have to pinch yourself to believe him, and you wonder how he will be able to defend this before the Marseille Administrative Court on 3 June. We asked the Prefect about his astonishing support for a project that clearly violates a large number of laws (‘urbanisme’, ‘environnement’, ‘ heritage’...), and he told us... that he would not answer us, as the procedure was already underway.

But the prefect goes even further: he dares to say that the mayor is guilty of a misuse of power and a misuse of procedure ‘the multiplication of bans and decrees adopted by the mayor of La Barben with consequences for the activities of Rocher Mistral [...]’. These activities, it should be remembered once again, are largely irregular, to say the least. The prefect, Christophe Mirmand, is certainly worthy of his sub-prefect. How dare he defend Rocher Mistral in this way? What kind of protection does this company enjoy? It does beg the question.

But the affair is obviously not over, and the twists and turns are multiplying. On 10 May, the Council of State ruled on a petition for interim measures, also seeking authorisation to use the road. And if it decided to ask for the removal of the obstacles installed at the entrance to the road, it was only to allow access to another local resident, but in no way to Rocher Mistral [1]. In contradicting the Prefect, the Council of State noted that ‘in the case of Rocher Mistral, the company took the decision in 2021 to build a car park to access its site on a plot of land served by a municipal road, which it could not have been unaware had been completely closed to motor vehicle traffic since 2011’. It points out that the company has been ordered to restore this plot of land (even though the appeal does not make this order enforceable). As a result, the Council of State upheld the ban on access to the car park via the road.

Finally, the most recent judgement was handed down today by the Council of State following a hearing on 24 April 2024, which we attended. Rocher Mistral was asking the Conseil d’Etat to annul a decision taken by the local authority to ‘suspend for two years three applications for planning permission’. These development permits should enable Rocher Mistral to expand even further. We explained in this article how this would worsen the heritage and ecological disaster.
Fortunately, Rocher Mistral’s appeal was rejected by the Council of State and it must pay €3,000 to the commune of La Barben .

3. Cars parked on the castle road on 8 May 2024
Photo: La Tribune de l’Art
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This case is becoming increasingly grotesque. And the dangers posed by this project to the castle’s environment could be seen on 8 May, a day when visitor numbers, boosted by aggressive communication from Rocher Mistral, were for once very high. As denounced in a press release issued by the association ‘Bien vivre à La Barben’, visitors were treated to scenes of chaos: ‘the château area experienced monstrous traffic jams and interminable queues, at the risk of endangering the safety of pedestrians, including many families with children. Vehicles parked anywhere, often on both sides of the road, including on the departmental road between La Barben and Saint-Cannat. Local residents found themselves confined to their homes, and the tourists were particularly angry. But the worst was avoided, at least this time’. The photos bear witness to this (ill. 1 to 3). On the day in question, faced with the influx of cars, the illegal car park whose access had been blocked by the town hall was reinvested, with cars reaching it by crossing the zoo car park. This gives an idea of how overcrowded the site would become (remember that it is a Natura 2000 site) if the project were to go ahead. Not to mention the fact that this is a ‘high fire hazard’ zone.

We are delighted that the Council of State has put a stop to Rocher Mistral’s demands, and outraged that the Prefect should dare to support this company. However, a statement made by the company’s lawyer at the hearing on 24 April offered some hope that the fight might one day end for lack of fighters. He explained that the impossibility of developing the surrounding area as it wished was putting Rocher Mistral in financial jeopardy. In fact, it is likely that the company would already have ceased trading had it not been supported by a number of investors, including Vincent Montagne and the Dassault family. Hopefully, the confirmation of the lower court ruling on appeal will also put an end to this lamentable affair.

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