French outraged over beach closure for Saudi king's visit Plan to close public beach when King Salman and his 500-strong retinue stay at Riviera villa in Vallauris stirs republican passions
La Mirandole, the public beach below the villa owned by the king of Saudi Arabia in Vallauris, France. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Amet/Reuters Kim Willsher in Paris
Monday 20 July 2015
The famously golden beaches and azure blue seas of the French Riviera are proving to be the rocky point where republican ideals meet realpolitik.
When a Saudi royal and his 500-strong retinue want to close a stretch of seafront on the Côte d’Azur, the locals can shout “liberté, égalité, fraternité” all they want – the beach is closed.
Bathers at La Mirandole – a narrow sliver of rocks and sands at Vallauris six miles from Cannes – have been told the area will be sealed off any day now on the arrival of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the grounds of whose mansion stretch along a kilometre of coastline. French officials also plan a 300-metre exclusion zone out to sea.
The decision has caused widespread outrage among locals in Vallauris used to bathing and fishing at the beach.
“The point we wish to make is that not everything can be bought,” councillor Jean-Noel Falcou told the Guardian. “The Saudis have been coming here for 40 years and they are welcome; all we ask is that they respect French law.”
Falcou has launched a petition to stop the beach closure.
“A public beach is an inalienable public property, like the Mona Lisa, open to anyone and everyone whoever they are. This has nothing to do with security and everything to do with personal pleasure.
“The impression the French state, which is supposed to support republican values, is giving of there being one law for the rich and one for the poor is extremely disturbing and an unfortunate precedent.”
King Salman is spending his summer holiday at the 1930s villa formerly known as the Château de l’Horizon, where Winston Churchill and Hollywood celebrities once stayed. Up to 500 members of the royal court are expected to join him either in the villa or in luxury hotels in Cannes. The property, which has its own private port, was described by Punch magazine in the 1930s as a “white palace set on the water”.
The French authorities say closing a small beach is the least they can do to protect the head of a country engaged with them in air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq. Local businesses are not complaining either. At Cannes, hoteliers met at the weekend to discuss how best to welcome their visitors.
Michel Chevillon, president of the local hoteliers union, told the newspaper Nice Matin: “When the King comes, other Saudis follow ... They reserve 20, 30 up to 50 or 60 rooms at a time … a total of between 500 and 1,000 rooms.
“This business hasn’t just fallen in our laps. We’ve worked at it. And contrary to common wisdom, the results doesn’t only profit [fashion retailers] Chanel and Dior. The Saudis have a very strong spending power and don’t count the cost. They order 10,000-15,000 flowers every day and hundreds of limousines that give jobs to as many chauffeurs.”
But Falcou said the economic benefits for Vallauris were almost zero. “Most of the money goes to Cannes. If you were to ask them if they prefer to have the use of the beach or the economic benefit for a month, the response would be unanimous,” he said.
Philippe Castanet, deputy prefect at nearby Grasse, said papers ordering the closure of the beach were ready to be signed as soon as the Saudi royal arrived. The monarch is expected some time this week.
Castanet said the beach would remain closed while someone of “high importance” was at the villa as a measure to “avoid putting the king of a country at war in danger”.
On Nice Matin’s website, there have been mostly angry responses to the closure. Johnp wrote: “Everyone prostrates themselves before money. If only there was as much motivation for taking care of the environment.” Claudy W added: “It’s unthinkable that a king can impose his wishes in a ’republic’. The security pretext is fallacious … What he wants is that his family can, when he wishes, come and bathe on his private beach and too bad for the citizens.”
The Gaullist politician Nicolas Dupont-Aignan told radio station France Inter: “What shocks me is that we appear to have returned to the ancien régime in our country. It’s the end of the equality of rights … There are security reasons and perhaps compromises to be found, but as a general rule what revolts our citizens is that the law is different if you are rich than if you are poor.
“There’s a need for justice and equality. It’s the appropriation of a public space by a foreign head of state.”
White palace set on the water
Originally called the Chateau de l”Horizon, the modernist villa was built in 1932 for the American actor Maxine Elliott, a friend of Churchill and his mother.
Churchill was a regular guest between 1934 and 1940 as well as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, David Lloyd George, Noël Coward, Elizabeth Taylor and members of the Kennedy family. During the second world war it was requisitioned by the Germans who used it as accommodation for Gestapo officers.
Prince Aly Khan bought it in 1948 and celebrated his marriage to Rita Hayworth, perfuming the swimming pool with eau de cologne and having their initials created in flower petals on the surface. It was bought by King Fahd in 1979, while he was heir to the Saudi throne, and has been used by Saudi royals as a summer retreat ever since.
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