The city of Versailles, faced with the scandal rising from its PLU project, is now proposing to return the land corresponding to the former Pion barracks (ill.) to the government (see article and the statement issued by city hall). The conditions of this sale - still valid at time of publication - are particularly edifying.
Aerial view of the Domaine national de Versailles.
In blue : 1865 wall, well preserved for the most part.
In green : outline of Etoile Royale lanes
and contours of Choisy pond.
Red diamonds : plan for new stations.
Red outline : plan for new road connections.
Red arrows : plan for connections of future
Grand Paris subway line to Mortemets and Matelots.
Photo : Google Earth
A disgraceful system of "carrying costs"
The city of Versailles has asked the Etablissement public foncier des Yvelines (EPFY) to buy, in its name, this part of the Domaine national de Versailles, which had been assigned to the army in 1906 against the wishes of the Service des Palais Nationaux. According to the information provided to us by the deputy mayor for urban affairs, this "system of carrying costs by the Etablissement public foncier allows the City to pay only [...] when everything has been settled", that is when the land is ready to be turned over to the developers . The city of Versailles would thus be buying at interest-free credit , the operation implying "practically only advantages" . A rather cynical attitude. It is shocking to see an Etablissement public of the government, which has notably the mission of "safekeeping or enhancing the value of constructed or non-constructed heritage and natural spaces" , about to carry out such an operation, in fact a violation of the SDRIF which classifies the upper half of the Pion land as an "agricultural space" (see article) .
An unbeatable price
We also learned that an "essentially pyrotechnical decontamination" will be needed, "following notably the bombings of 1940" . Since a law was passed in 1975, polluted land cannot be sold until it has been decontaminated. As this preliminary expense often delays the sale of military land, the Law for Modernisation de l’économie of 2008 allows it to be transferred to the charge of the buyer, "the cost of decontaminating included in the sale price" . The price of the land itself, decontaminated and ready for construction is, after a reevaluation, of 11 million euros, that is 524,000€ per hectare of the Domaine National acquired by Louis XIV. The price can be broken down as follows : "5 million euros for the purchase of the land as is ; 2 million euros for demolition work ; 4 million euros for the pyrotechnical decontamination work" , the last expense imposed only due to the future urbanization of the site . The French Ministry of Defense which will benefit from the sale thanks to a dispensation from the principle of global government budgeting, will therefore only receive 5 million euros from this operation at Pion, a negligeable profit entailing major harm to national heritage. This absurd result is very revealing, as Sophie Flouquet observes in the Journal des Arts, of the "policy [of deaccessioning] carried out in an autistic manner by France Domaine" .
Violation of principles
The sum of 11 million euros might seem to be a particularly low price for 21 hectares of an "exceptional urban site in close proximity to the Etoile Royale of the château" according to the expression the city of Versailles has already borrowed from real estate marketing statements . However, this debate should never have been opened in the first place since it is impossible to evaluate the Domaines nationaux in terms of money. This is the collective heritage of the French people, assets which should remain out of the grasp of any business operation, to be rehabilitated and not sold. Their previous assignment to the army for a temporary period, does not in any way change the fact that they are the property of the government, the unique owner of the whole. The army is no more the owner of Pion, than the Minister of Education is of Chèvreloup, or even, the Etablissement Public de Versailles of the lands it contains. Therefore, according to the statutary decree, "the public establishment has as its missions [...] to conserve, protect, restore in the name of the government [...] the châteaux and domains it has been granted" .
While a provisional law, voted in 1986, and renewed every five years  eliminates the rule of "preferential assignment" to another government department of assets no longer useful for the army, we should point out that Parliament members could never at any moment have imagined that this provision would run contrary to the integrity of the Domaines nationaux. Thus, the only normal thing would be to return to the established rules preventing deaccessioning and preserving the imprescriptible character of the public domain  set down as far back as 1539, by an edict of Francis I .
Deaccessioning the land at Pion would indeed be setting a dramatic precedent for the other Domaines nationaux (Marly, Meudon, Rambouillet) and, in the immediate future, for the annexes of the château of Saint Cloud which the army would like to get rid of after having postponed their reclassification in 1994 ...
A major blow to heritage
Finally, we can only regret that the promises of economic development made by the city of Versailles have led the city to "take an interest" in the most readily available lands of the Domain (21 hectares at Pion, about 10 hectares belonging to the RFF at Matelots and probably the INRA site ) which unfortunately are the most sensitive ones for heritage preservation. The "280 hectares for development" on the Satory Plateau  raise the same questions of principle, true, but they have the advantage of being physically separate from the rest of the Domain since they are located on a plateau. The extensive pollution there, however, was not conducive to a quick urbanization project  when, as we know, political time is always measured in the short term...