A French mayor on Thursday urged a court to uphold his ban on the use of pesticides near homes in his community, saying his stance against pollution would be "vindicated by history".
Daniel Cueff, mayor of a Brittany village called Langouet, was summoned to court in the northwestern city of Rennes for imposing a ban in mid-May on the use of pesticides on land within 150 metres (yards) of homes or workplaces.
Outside the court, between 700 and 1,000 people turned up to demonstrate their support, police and organisers said, in a case that has highlighted growing public opposition to chemical pollution in rural areas.
"Can a mayor ignore the health of local residents?" Cueff asked the court, citing a 2009 European directive which he said "required France to take steps to protect residents from pesticides".
"But nothing has been done," he said.
Referring to studies which showed the health risk posed by pesticides, he said he had not banned them outright, but merely imposed a limit on the distance between the treated fields and residents' homes.
- Controversial weedkiller -
Cueff has spent the past 20 years working on environmental issues in his community of around 600, banning chemical weedkiller and opening an organic school canteen in 2004.
Residents had raised concerns about crop spraying, saying tests had shown several children had "very high levels" of the glyphosate, a controversial weedkiller, in their urine.
But the ban angered non-organic local farmers, who insisted the pesticide was necessary to keep weeds at bay and that they had not been consulted.
Outside the court, supporters had hung a large banner reading: "Let our mayors protect us" and when Cueff arrived for the hearing, the crowd broke into applause.
"We are at a tipping point, the state must show itself to be on the side of the people," said Michel Besnard, who heads a regional support group for people affected by pesticides.
The court will issue its decision next week.
- 'Better protection' -
France has pushed for an EU-wide ban on glyphosate, which is found in the best-selling weedkiller Roundup sold by multinational Monsanto, amid rising concern among consumers about its impact on health.
But the country is one of the European Union's heaviest users of the herbicide, which is sprayed on food crops but also on public lawns and in forestry.
It has been described by the World Health Organization as "probably carcinogenic."
The issue of chemical pollution has slowly risen up the political agenda in France as voters grow increasingly concerned about environmental degradation and climate change.
Ahead of the hearing, Environment Minister Elisabeth Borne said the government was looking at ways to better protect the population from airborne pesticides.
"We have been working on... how to better protect residents from the spraying of pesticides," she told RTL radio on Wednesday, saying there would be a consultation on the matter "very soon".
"The mayor is right about one thing: we have to better protect residents from the spraying of pesticide."
But she also noted it was not acceptable for local officials to take the law into their own hands.
The mayor's stance has won support from the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo whose petition calling for a ban on synthetic pesticides has garnered some 800,000 signatures since it was launched last September.
Cueff announced his decision to ban pesticides in a May public address in his village where he stood on a wooden box dressed in a white protective suit and wearing his tricolour mayor's sash.
"It is legitimate for a mayor to take action when there is incompetence by the state," he declared.
Over the past two years, more than a dozen mayors have issued bans on pesticides. It was not immediately clear how many had been overturned by the courts.