FRANCE'S $35 billion fast-train program is being seriously challenged in the country's southern region of Provence as an ecological disaster and a threat to the region's quality of life. The fierce opposition, from farmers and urban escapees and hundreds of mayors of C'ezanne-perfect villages, catches the government and President Fran,cois Mitterrand by surprise.
Up to now, the most-vocal complaints came from cities that did not want to be left without stations as new rail lines for the 180-mile-an-hour-plus train were carved into the west and north.
But in Provence, where already booming high-tech cities like Aix-en-Provence are sprinkled among fields of sunflowers, pencil-thin cypress, and ochre-colored, green-shuttered villages, the economic imperative of the TGV (a French acronym signifying Very Fast Train) is less pronounced. The government showcases the project as a keystone of French technological development and European integration.
Here, people fear that the friendly, sun-washed, and not-too-hurried way of life they lead will be destroyed by the noise, cement, and 100-foot-wide right-of-way of the TGV.
``This is a battle for a quality of life and for the respect of people,'' says Andr'e Tronchon, mayor of Les Tourrettes, a village of 800 on the Rh^one River north of Mont'elimar. ``It's a battle. We have no choice but to win.''
For Mariette Cuvellier, a school teacher who this summer has helped organize some of the area's 32 anti-TGV associations, the fight is simply between two opposite visions of life.
``The TGV is all about France's prestige and getting people ever faster from one place to another,'' she says. ``What matters to us is how people live in their surroundings. I think that makes this a true ecological issue, but the government doesn't understand that.''
Opposition to the southern limbs of the TGV - from Valence toward Nice to the east and Montpellier to the west - has been building all year. As part of the protest, opposition groups say they will block all trains from passing through southern France on Aug. 18.
But Mr. Mitterrand unwittingly fed the flames of fury when he announced in his Bastille Day address July 14 that he opposed a southern TGV line that would pass through the ``magnificent'' vineyards of the C^otes-du-Rh^one, on the eastern edges of the Rh^one Valley. What he intended as an environmental gesture set off local passions.
``When he came out for grapes over people, that showed us how powerful the grape growers' lobby is,'' says Mrs. Cuvellier. She says it also reminded residents of Provence that ``France is still governed in a very imperial, centralized way.''
In the following weeks, demonstrations at several train stations blocked trains laden with summer tourists for up to six hours. Demonstrators in Aix-en-Provence, near a proposed TGV line that would slice by Paul C'ezanne's beloved Mont Sainte Victoire, chanted, ``C'ezanne, wake up. They've gone crazy.''
And in the lavender-scented hills above Marseille and Toulon, which the TGV is set to pass on its way to Nice, the mayors of 64 towns announced their opposition not just to the proposed line options, but to any passage of the TGV through their region.
Last week residents of the Dr^ome, the region around Mont'elimar, formed a 500-car night procession that wound slowly through the hills and villages that the TGV would cross.
``It's like the bell that was rung in the Middle Ages to warn people of a plague, a fire, or a death,'' says Fran,cois Gadenne, who moved his family from the northern industrial city of Lille years ago to a more rural life in the south. ``We're telling people, `Watch out, their progress is going to be built on our backs.'''
SNCF, the national railroad, is unhappy with the controversy for several reasons.
First, it feels it is been thrown to the lions. Its preferred option - the main southern TGV line, the one that cost the least and disrupted the fewest inhabitants - is the one that Mitterrand has ruled out. The agency also doesn't like seeing its showpiece service attacked as a nuisance and a detriment to life.
``The TGV is internationally known, it's bringing prosperity to new regions, and will make France the crossroads of tomorrow's Europe,'' says Francis Boulanger, assistant chief spokesman for SNCF. ``In most cases, it's the regions that won't be served by it that are complaining.''
The controversy also took the agency by surprise. When virulent protests in the southeast English county of Kent stopped the proposed fast-train line from London to the English mouth of the Channel Tunnel, SNCF didn't think the same could happen in France.
``Even though we've faced unhappy landowners in the past, the number taking us to court over expropriation agreements hasn't passed 2 percent,'' says Mr. Boulanger.
But perhaps most important, the Paris-Marseille TGV line is expected to be the agency's most profitable, and the modifications that the protests are sure to bring will only reduce the margins.
The SNCF went from 12 million passengers throughout the southeast in 1980 to 18 million in 1985 after the TGV put Lyon at two hours from Paris, according to Boulanger. Even before the line is put through to Marseille, the number has risen to 22 million.
``We're developing a project to serve the greatest number, not to take care of each individual case,'' says Boulanger. ``It hurts us when people say we don't have a heart, but do 22 million people weigh less than a few thousand?''
In an effort to calm the controversy, the government has appointed a three-member committee to study the TGV line's options and make a recommendation by October. In the meantime, the number of demonstrations continues to multiply, drawing people who never before took part in public protests.
``We said nothing about the freeway and we've had to live with its noise for 20 years,'' says Ren'e Ibot, who points across a field of sunburned cornstalks to France's principal north-south automobile artery. Now this man who works the farm his wife's great-great grandparents started could end up with the TGV a quarter-mile on the other side of his house.
``A train every four minutes,'' says Mr. Ibot. ``When you sit on a tractor all day, you need some peace and quiet.''
Looking over a valley made up of all the greens and yellows of C'ezanne's palette, he adds, ``Already the freeway has made it difficult, but the TGV will make it impossible. I don't think the Parisians understand that - for them, this valley is simply a way to get to the Mediterranean coast.''