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Arborist Thomas Brail has set up camp in a 200-year-old plane tree – one of three ancient trees once protected by Gustav Eiffel but which are now threatened by a project to develop tourist facilities around the Eiffel Tower.
Brail sits high up in the branches of the largest plane tree at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. At a height of 14 metres, he's surrounded by ropes.
The environmentalist from Gers, in south-west France, founded the National Tree Surveillance Group (GNSA) in 2019 and is lending support to opponents of the OnE Paris project – a series of tourist facilities and offices that are to be built at the foot of the tower in time for the 2024 Olympic Games.
The project would involve ripping up 22 trees. A petition to denounce it has gathered some 140,000 signatures so far.
“It’s too bad we prefer to pay attention to a building – an iron monument that doesn’t provide oxygen and doesn’t decarbonise the planet – rather than this poor plane tree that does such a great job,” says Brail, having winched himself down the side of the tree.
"These trees provide shelter for birds, bats, insects ... The older the trees are, the more biodiversity they offer. That's why we have to conserve these old guys."
Sensing opposition is welling, Paris's Deputy Mayor, Emmanuel Gregoire, has promised that no tree older than 100 will be cut down.
Listen to a report on the tree protection campaign in Spotlight on France
Critical root zone
But campaigners say old plane trees will be killed off nonetheless because the building project would attack their so-called "critical root zone".
"If we were in Germany or the UK there would be protection all around this tree to officially stop construction in a park," says Tangui Le Dantec, scientific advisor to France Nature Environment.
"But in France we have only limited regulations that restrict building to within six metres of a tree. That can work for a young tree but not for a 200-year-old whose roots are much longer.
"At the moment this tree is healthy but if we build at the foot of its roots, it will die."
The redevelopment project also involves planting dozens of trees and creating a green space across the clogged centre of the capital.
But Le Dantec says it's not just about numbers, because the older trees are irreplaceable in terms of what they bring to the ecosystem.
“This tree is worth 700 newly planted trees,” he says reaching out to the sturdy plane tree Brail is occupying.
“And it’s the equivalent of between 130 and 150 adult trees in Paris. By ecosystem services I mean de-polluting the atmosphere, the ground, water and the cooling effect it has.
"That will become very important over the coming years with global warming.”
Plane trees, in particular, are a part of French heritage.
Napoleon allegedly had them planted alongside the roads to offer shade to his troops. They also became a feature alongside the Midi canal in the south of France, providing shade for horse-drawn barges transporting merchandise.
Although best adapted to Mediterranean climes, they have managed to thrive in cities further north such as Paris.
“These three plane trees were planted on the Champs de Mars in 1814,” Le Dantec explains.
“There were dozens at the time the tower was built, but Gustav Eiffel did a lot to protect these ones. In a way they are Gustav Eiffel’s trees.”
The largest, in which Brail is squatting, weighs 50 tonnes.
“It’s 50 tonnes of living history. This tree has known two empires, two monarchies, four republics, two occupations and countless wars.
“It’s history, patrimony, but most of all it’s life itself at the very heart of the densest city in Europe.
"So it’s life we must cherish.”
Campaigners say the Champ de Mars park is sorely needed in a town like Paris, which lacks green spaces.
“We're well under the WHO recommendations in terms of square metres of green space per inhabitant," says Philippe Khayat of the SOS Paris NGO, one of the backers of the petition.
"We have around 3m2 per inhabitant, whereas we need at least 10m2 to be in good health."
Khayat also denounces the OnE project as purely commercial.
“Behind all of this there's a commercial project to make more money out of tourists visiting the Eiffel Tower."
Emile Meunier, a Greens official at Paris City Council, originally voted for the project in February – but has since changed his mind. He says it’s not too late to abandon the work.
“The project was voted but as it's a city project so we can go back on it and cancel the planning permission," he says.
Since Brail began his sit-in, Paris City Hall has promised discussions with environmental groups to find a way forward.
But the arborist’s mission extends beyond the walls of Paris.
He wants the environmental code, which forbids the felling of healthy trees in urban areas, to be better respected across the country.
In February it was modified to include an exemption for reasons of "urban planning and development".
“The law is strong but it’s being weakened and we’re worried about that,” Brail says.
He also wants tighter regulation over the clearfelling of forests in France, which leads to a dramatic loss of biodiversity.
“Our ecosystem will collapse if we continue with this highly industrialised economic model," Brail says.
"Of course we can take wood from forests – I burn wood at home myself – but not in the way we are doing. It’s too violent for the forest.
“We all know the planet is heating up because we don’t have enough trees. It’s as simple as that.”
Support from PM
In 2019, Brail spent 28 days up in a tree opposite the Ministry of Ecology to try and stop the felling of 26 plane trees in Condom, close to where he lives.
His mission failed but then ecology minister Elisabeth Borne tweeted her support for his “sincere” fight, and said she hoped they could work together to improve tree protection.
A copy of her message is printed on a huge sheet that has been suspended next to Brail's tent.
Now she's the Prime Minister and Brail is counting on her keeping her word.