Coastal law (Loi Littoral)

The French Coastal Law (Loi Littoral) of 3 January 1986 marked a push to control urbanisation on the coastline in many aspects, even though it did not apply to entire sections of coastal activity, such as fishing and ports. The law took tourism into account and brought forth debate on the legal application of this text, much like the other economic activities concerned.

A text with regulatory scope

From the late 18th century, and especially after the 1850s, tourism drove a process of societal integration for margins which had until then been ignored, for the most part, the excluded ports; this perspective was reversed in the 1970s. The Promethean vision that prevailed gave way to the term ‘sustainable development’. The Coastal Law was one of the early outcomes in France of this new approach to the environment.

The Coastal Law passed as a legal response to debate in the 1970s and 1980s over controlling coastal urbanisation. Spain had a coastal law at the time, since 1969, but France proposed novel and proactive provisions which would serve as a model (for Spain) when a second coastal law was introduced in 1988 (Torres Alfosea, 2010). It increased protection of the coastline already outlined by the D’Ornano Directive of 25 August 1979.

The Coastal Law is more regulatory than operational. The legislator’s vision was clear in terms of policing, limitation and demarcation rather than in terms of projects and public will. Tourism is specifically mentioned at the end of Article 1 on objectives and in Article 19 on tourist areas. Provisions elsewhere in the text concern the tourism carrying capacity of areas to be protected, free public access to the sea, the development or opening of sites for camping and caravans, the development of new roads, water quality, the management and demarcation of maritime and river public domain and beaches (Mesnard, 1997).

The Coastal Law applies to all French coastal municipalities in mainland France and in French overseas departments and territories. Coastal municipalities border seas, oceans, salt ponds, inland water bodies under 1,000 hectares (e.g., Annecy, where the situation is tense according to Alice Nikolli, 2022), and estuaries and deltas where the municipality is located within the salt-water intrusion limit.

Enforcement of the Coastal Law (Articles L 146-1 et seq. of the French urban planning code) was gradual because the decrees making the law enforceable were met with resistance (some of which had still not been issued by early 2020). It is important to clarify the four main principles of building and urbanisation restrictions (codified in the urban planning code):

  • How should the notion of urbanised space be interpreted (knowing that the 100-metre strip of land off-limits to building does not apply in areas that are already urbanised)?
  • What is activity requiring close proximity to water?
  • What is a ‘remarkable’ coastal area?
  • What is meant by ‘limited extension of urbanisation in areas close to the shore’ and ‘extension in continuity of urbanisation’?

Its role in controlling urbanisation

The Coastal Law is mainly known for provisions which limit the extension of urbanisation. In the municipalities concerned, urbanisation must be carried out in continuity or in new hamlets integrated into the environment. In areas close to the shore, the extension must be justified in the urban planning documents by how the site is configured or used for economic activities requiring immediate proximity to water. In the 100-metre coastal strip, construction is prohibited outside urbanised areas.

But massive urbanisations have been stopped in areas close to the shore. The French Council of State’s 1993 ‘Commune de Gassin’ decision made the public authorities aware that the Coastal Law had real legal force in cancelling a concerted development zone of more than 40,000 m2 on the Saint-Tropez peninsula. And the demarcation of remarkable natural areas, together with the policy of land acquisition by the Coastal Conservatory (Conservatoire du Littoral), has made it possible to establish green sanctuaries on the coast, such as the natural areas of Massif des Maures and the Massif de l’Estérel in Var (Calderaro, 2010).

But although the Coastal Law has been better integrated into urban planning documents since the mid-1990s, individual and sometimes community functions violate some of its provisions. The limitation and supervision of beach establishments, made possible by a decree issued on 26 May 2006, is very slow to happen. Several new laws bypass provisions of the Coastal Law. The ‘Urbanism, housing and construction’ law, known as the De Robien Law, contributed in 2003 to loosening what some consider to be an ‘environmental straitjacket’.

It is clearly accepted that the principles of the Coastal Law must be adapted to local (and particularly geographic) circumstances, in local planning and urban development documents (identifying remarkable areas, ensuring continuity of urbanisation and limiting it in areas close to the shore). In this respect, the legal discourse gives priority to local urbanism plans (plan local d’urbanisme, PLU) (which are necessary from a regulatory point of view) and coastal territorial coherence schemes (schémas de cohérence territoriale, SCOT). The ELAN law (Art. 42) pertaining to housing, planning and digital technology, makes the aforementioned PLU and SCOT steering tools in the integrated planning of coastal areas, by officially requiring they specify how the Coastal Law is enforced. The fact remains that the contemporary trend to multiply the number of planning documents (e.g., the regional scheme for planning, sustainable development and territorial equality [schéma régional d’aménagement, de développement durable et d’égalité des territoires, SRADDET] and the seafront strategic document [document stratégique de façade, DSF]) does not help to simplify (and therefore clarify) the territorialisation of the legal norm (Bordereaux, 2020).

Johan Vincent


  • Bordereaux Laurent, 2020, «Le littoral en quête de statut: les méandres du (des) droit(s)», Fonciers en débat. juillet, en ligne.
  • Calderaro Norbert, 2010, «La loi Littoral et le juge. Vingt ans de jurisprudence sur la façade méditerranéenne française», Méditerranée. n°115, p. 69-77, en ligne.
  • Nikolli Alice, 2022, «Le lac d’Annecy, entre images et réalités: approche géographique d’un espace convoité», Géoconfluences. mars, en ligne.
  • Mesnard André-Hubert, 1997, «Maîtrise du littoral et activités touristiques», Revue juridique de l’environnement. Hors-série, p. 45-51.
  • Torres Alfosea Francisco José, 2010, «Vingt ans d’application de la loi Littoral en Espagne. Un bilan mitigé», Méditerranée. n°115, p. 9-19, en ligne.