Why does France still have so many WWII bunkers on its coast?

Have you ever taken a stroll along France's western or northern coastlines and stumbled upon a World War II bunker? Here is why there are so many still in place across the French coast.

Why does France still have so many WWII bunkers on its coast?
A pedestrian walks past a German Blockhaus from the WWII at La Torche beach, in Plomeur, western France, on June 27, 2022. (Photo by FRED TANNEAU / AFP)

When walking along France’s western or northern coastline, at some point you will likely stumble come across a vestige of the past – a large slab of concrete, perhaps now decorated with graffiti, which once served as a World War II bunker.

At least 8,000 of these ‘blockhouses’ or bunkers were built across France’s coastline from 1942 to 1944, as part Nazi Germany’s effort to create an ‘Atlantic wall’ intended to protect against Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe.

While bunkers were built from Norway to Spain, the bulk were constructed in France – from Dunkirk to Basque country – in a massive labour push that required over 290,000 workers and 13 million cubic metres of concrete.

READ MORE: 22 of the biggest myths about French history

About eight decades later, hundreds – if not thousands – of these now-dilapidated bunkers remain in place on French beaches. In fact, it is difficult to estimate exactly how many remain, as a national inventory of the bunkers has never been done, according to Europe 1.

You can hear the team at The Local talking about the bunkers in the latest episode of the Talking France podcast – download it here or listen on the link below


In the immediate post-war period getting rid of the bunkers was seen as too expensive, difficult, possibly dangerous and just not a priority.

The bunkers were built to withstand an invasion, so demolishing them is not easy.

According to French media Ça m’interesse, “in Lorient, the bunkers were the only things left standing in 1945, after aerial bombing razed the city to the ground”. 

A 2016 effort to remove four bunkers from a beach on the island of Ile-de-Ré found that each bunker would require two full weeks of labour to be removed, with some having one-metre-thick walls, according to 20 Minutes.

Their sheer indestructibility made dealing with the bunkers low on the priority list as France rebuilt in the 1940s and 50s – although some had their doors and metal parts removed, as the country was desperately short of metal at the time.

In the aftermath of WWII entire cities including Brest, Caen and Dunkirk had to be rebuilt, while across France several thousand kilometres of railroad tracks that had been torn up. 

In 1946, the country embarked on the Monnet Plan which focused on developing national production and industry in France, with heavy emphasis on sectors like finance, energy and transport.

A shameful period

However historians have suggested another reason for leaving the bunkers – especially in the latter part of the 20th century when the first urgent rebuilding after the war was completed.

“A lot of French construction companies got very rich out of building the Wall,” Jerome Prieur, author of a 2010 book, Le Mur Atlantique, told the BBC in an interview. 

In a 2022 investigation on the enormous labour effort that was undertaken to construct the Atlantic Wall, Radio France found that at least 15,000 French companies and tens of thousands of French workers were hired to build the wall. 

The project also required the assistance of 40 of France’s cement factories, and it ended up using 80 percent of the country’s cement produced during the 1942-1944 period. 

Radio France noted that in 1941, France’s national construction market was worth 16 million francs, and by 1943 it jumped to 671 million, thanks in no small part to bunker-building.

Taking the example of the Côtes-du-Nord area in northern France, Radio France found that in 1939 there were only 35 companies in the construction sector, but by 1942, there were 110.

The Vichy regime used the construction of the wall as propaganda as well, claiming that it had reduced unemployment significantly. Prieur explained to the BBC that “after the war, France needed those same companies for the task of reconstruction. So no-one said anything. There was a wilful blindness, in which everyone was complicit.”

READ MORE: Oldest allies: The best and worst moments of the French-American relationship

In 1944, Robert Lacoste, a member of the resistance who would go on to become Minister of Industry, sent out a memo calling out the construction industry’s complicity, saying that “the most guilty company directors must be prosecuted”.

Eventually, some convictions were handed down, but the goal was generally not put into action, according to Radio France.

There’s also the identity of the workers who built the wall – while a significant number of workers were forced labourers including people from occupied Eastern Europe and refugees from the Spanish Civil War, many French workers opted to work on the wall themselves, attracted by the high wages.

French writer and journalist, Vincent Borel, wrote “World War II: The Atlantic Wall, built for the enemy by the French”, and in it he said that “the reality of the wall was quickly erased from the national memory, giving way to the myth of an army of blond warriors who alone laid the concrete on the coasts of a predominantly resistant France.”

Bunkers in the 21st century

In many instances, it has been left up to French local authorities to decide the what should happen to the bunkers. 

Many were left alone – now serving as squats or hang-out spots for local teenagers.

A few have been memorialised – like the memorial ’39-45′ in Saint-Malo and the one in Longues-sur-Mer in Calvados – while others have been converted, like the wine cellar near Bordeaux, as reported by 20 minutes.

Some local organisations, like Gramasa (The Archaeological Research Group for the Atlantic Wall), have popped up in recent years with the goal of preserving the bunkers, and in the 21st century – as the war becomes a more distant memory – many people see the bunkers as a part of French history that should be preserved.

Now 70 years old, the bunkers stand as a reminder of a difficult and painful, but nonetheless important, part of France’s history.

The Local’s columnist, and Normandy resident, John Lichfield, said: “I think it would be quite wrong to remove them, not to mention very difficult.

“I can see why they were not removed in the immediate aftermath of the war, large parts of Normandy were in ruins and the last thing people wanted was to create more ruins. All efforts had to be put into rebuilding the towns along the coast which were destroyed by the British and the Americans to a large extent, bombings which can to this day not be justified in many cases.

“There’s no pressure to remove the bunkers that remain in Normandy, some of them have quietly sunk into fields, some of them are still very prominent – in the little seaside towns along the coast you often come across a bunker in among the hotels and guesthouses and I don’t think anyone complains that it is there, it’s part of the history of the place.”


But there is also a growing safety issue arising from coastal erosion.

For those that were built directly on the beaches, like many on Ile-de-Ré, waves moving inland have made the bunkers potentially dangerous. In 2016, after several years of coastal erosion, local authorities were forced to invest over €275,000 to pay for the removal of four bunkers because “they created a ‘Venturi effect’ where they generated a depression around them which accelerated the erosion”, Lionel Quillet, the president of the Ile-de-Ré mayors, explained to 20 Minutes.  

Meanwhile in the northern Pas-de-Calais area, a bunker collapsed into the sea due to the erosion of the cliff it was built on, forcing local authorities to close off the cliff path for safety reasons. 

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How do French Senate elections work?

Senate elections take place in France this week - here's how they work and what French senators actually do.

How do French Senate elections work?

An important election is coming up in France on Sunday, September 24th – although it probably won’t receive heavy media coverage. 

France’s Senate, the upper house of the country’s parliament, will renew half (170) of its 348 seats on Sunday.

However, the general public will not take part in the voting process.

What are ‘indirect’ elections?

Senators are elected ‘indirectly’ – which means that the general public does not choose the candidates or parties, as they would in a direct voting system. Instead, they elect the people who will do the voting.

In France, the voting for senators is up to the country’s grands électeurs (electoral college), which consists of approximately 162,000 elected officials – including elected regional councillors, département councillors, mayors, municipal councillors in larger communes and MPs in the National Assembly. 

Those selected for the electoral college are required to vote, and if they fail to do so they risk a fine of €100. How they vote is entirely up to them (although naturally they tend to vote along party lines). 

Municipal councillors and département councillors made up the majority of delegates (95 percent) of the grands électeurs as of 2023.

The size of the commune determines how many delegates represent it – so for a commune of less than 9,000 inhabitants with a town council of just seven to 11 members, there would be one delegate (member of the electoral college). In contrast, a commune with between 9,000 to 30,000 inhabitants would have all of its municipal councillors (of which there could be between 29 to 35 members) serving as delegates in the electoral college.

How does voting work?

There are two distinct voting methods for electing French senators, and which one is chosen depends on the number of seats to be filled in that département. In départements with one or two senators to be elected, the ‘first-past-the-post’ option is used, meaning voters in the electoral college get to choose a single candidate and the one with the most votes wins.

In départements with three or more senators to be elected, proportional representation lists are used.

In comparison, the lower house of parliament, the Assemblée Nationale, is elected with a direct voting system. The 577 deputés take up five year terms (subject to dissolution).

The different voting methods between the two houses are “to ensure that all the diverse components of French society are represented as fairly as possible.”

The theory being that if your area votes strongly in favour of the centre-left Parti Socialiste then the delegates elected are PS, and they in turn will pick PS senators – so that the overall views of the area are represented in the Senate. 

Senate terms 

Senators are elected to six year terms and are allowed to run for re-election as many times as they like. Many senators serve for a long time – for example, the current president of France’s Senate, Gérald Larcher, was first elected in 1986. 

In the 2020 election, of the 172 renewable seats up for vote, 94 were incumbents, and 78 were newly elected.

How often are they elected?

Senate elections occur every three years, with half of the seats voted on each time. This September, the 170 ‘serie 1’ seats will be voted on. 

You can see where the serie 1 (darker orange) elections are to be held in the map below.

Each département has a different number of senators representing it, which is proportional to the number of constituents who live there – so the city of Paris has 12 senators, the Nord départment 11, and the sparsely-populated département of Lozère just one.

Credit: Senat.Fr

Who are France’s senators?

The average age of senators at the beginning of their term, according to official figures, is 60 years and two months (the minimum age to run is 24).

In total 67 percent (232 senators) are men, with 315 of the 348 officials representing metropolitan France. The remaining 33 represent French overseas territories and departments, and French citizens living abroad. 

The make-up of the delegates tends to over-represent rural areas which means, on the whole, the Senate leans to the centre-right of France’s political spectrum. 

It is usual for the Senate to have a different political mix than the Assemblée Nationale and it has only had a leftist majority once since the foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 – for the three-year period between 2011-2014. 

The centre-right Les Républicains party currently holds 145 seats, Parti Socialiste holds 64 seats, and the ‘groupe union centriste’ (a centrist alliance) holds 57 seats.

According to Franceinfo, the party Les Républicains are slated as the favourites to win the most seats during the election on September 24th. Le Figaro wrote that Les Republicains will put up 65 seats during the election, and they hope to maintain at least 60 of those.

What does the Senate do?

The Senate’s job is to review Bills submitted by the government of the day, or by the Assembly. It also watches over the Government to make sure that any enacted laws are implemented properly. Senators can – and do – introduce bills (proposition de loi) of their own, but it is the Assembly that is the real driving force of government.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: How does the French Senate work?

The reason that Senate elections don’t get much media coverage is that the power of the Senate is limited – in cases where the Assemblée nationale and the Senate vote differently, ultimately it is the Assemblée nationale which has the final say. 

The senate does have one particularly crucial role, however – the Senate president would take over as Acting President of the Republic in the event of vacancy, incapacity (or death), or resignation of the president. This has happened twice during the Fifth Republic – both times with the same person. Senate president Alain Poher briefly served as Acting president after the resignation mid-term of Charles de Gaulle and the death in office of Georges Pompidou.

The President of the Senate also has the right to designate three of the nine members of the Constitutional Council, serving for nine years.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is France’s Constitutional Council and how does it work?

In terms of compensation, a French senator earns (monthly) €7,493.30, which is made up of a ‘basic parliamentary allowance’ of €5,820.04, a ‘function’ allowance (for other expenses related to the job) of €1,498.66 and a residence allowance of €174.60.