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July 20 2019
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Château Diter, a palazzo in the South of France.

If you make the windy drive up into the hills of Cannes at sunset, it’s hard not to think of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of the place: “The diffused magic of the hot sweet south … the soft-pawed night, and the ghostly wash of the Mediterranean far below.”

Although it’s been almost a century now since Fitzgerald wrote Tender Is the Night, the South of France still owns a fair amount of real estate inside American hearts. It conjures up young Brigitte Bardot or Alain Delon strolling the promenade at the Cannes Film Festival, or Peter Mayle spending his year of bucolic bliss in the nearby hills of Provence. Picasso and Cézanne painted there. H. G. Wells lived there, and Édith Piaf died there. It’s a place we think of as elegant and refined, but in parts also naturally wild and strictly preserved. And yet today, outside the small city of Grasse, known as the perfume capital of the world, the air is no longer filled with just jasmine and cicadas. There’s loud techno music throbbing in the hills as well, and it’s probably coming from Château Diter.

Le Palazzo

Château Diter stands out from the other farmhouses in the area, maybe because in form and scale it looks more Italian Renaissance than Provençal; it’s a princely palace you might more easily find outside Siena than Cannes.

From a bird’s-eye view, it’s not just one house but several, starting with the main villa, whose windowed balconies hang over tiled patios lined by palm trees. To its left sits a medieval cloister, which leads to a clock tower/guesthouse, then a wedding cupola, then a giant swimming pool, then a reconverted old distillery; roughly a dozen Venetian-red and ochre stone structures in total, all of them surrounded by manicured gardens and trimmed hedges and giant cypress trees. And although the roof tiles are terra-cotta and the alabaster archways have been smoothed over by centuries, none of this existed 20 years ago.

Well, it did, but only inside the head of Patrick Diter, a real-estate developer who, in 2001, purchased the property, then just a 17-acre bluff of scrub brush and olive trees⁠—a far cry from the Italianate playground it is today.

Patrick Diter at the piano in a reception room of Château Diter in 2017.

Nobody then could have imagined Diter’s grandiose design, probably because they hadn’t seen a developer quite like him before. In a 2018 interview accorded to the French television network TF1, Diter described his childhood as less than modest. He grew up in the slums of Montreuil, outside of Paris, left school at an early age, and forged a successful career buying houses cheap, renovating and selling them for millions to a new kind of clientele in the South of France, the kind who appreciated his style.

This same brashness would play out in Grasse. One year after buying the land, Diter sold off a large portion of it to his neighbors, Caroline and Stephen Butt, a wealthy couple from London seeking a vacation home. According to a regional newspaper, Nice-Matin, the sale allowed Diter to double his original investment, and gave him the resources to initiate a frenzied renovation over the next few years that would culminate in a drawn-out legal battle with the Butts and others, and which has taken almost two decades now to resolve.

But the squabble has gone far beyond just a question of zoning and neighborly conflict. The case of Château Diter opened up questions of class, old money versus new money, and the environmental risks of uncurbed development. It’s raised questions about the South of France in general, whose reputation as a sanctuary of refined living and unspoiled heritage is being replaced by that of a “French banana republic,” as Paul Euzière, a member of the Grasse city council put it. To some, the area has devolved into a fiefdom of shady deals and cozy relationships with local politicians, whose Cosa Nostra style of justice has allowed illegal developments (like Château Diter) to sprout up in the hills and on the coast like measles, thanks to what many call the infamous “Permit Provençal,” where you build the property of your dreams, then obtain the right to build it afterward.

Zoning Outlaw

It’s unclear exactly when Patrick Diter broke ground on his Xanadu, but his legal troubles arrived in 2005, when a bulldozer operating on his property smashed a neighbor’s retaining wall. The neighbor, Anne-Marie Sohn, a longtime Grasse resident and professor emeritus at the select l’École Normale Supérieure de Lyon, reported the incident to her insurance company, and when the insurer did due diligence, Sohn learned that the work being undertaken at Diter’s had no authorization.

In November of that year, the city of Grasse ordered work to be stopped to allow time to determine whether Diter had operated outside of the law during this phase of construction. He was asked to file for a building permit. The first request was denied in March 2006, on the grounds that the work was unsafe. A few months later, another request was filed, and Diter was issued one retroactively. He somehow secured a second permit in 2008, which allowed him to “rectify” whatever the original structure was.

During the court battle, investigators discovered that a collection of bâtiments légers (tiny lean-tos) had been demolished and replaced by something larger just after the purchase of the property. An act of sale dated March 5, 2004, shows Diter sold the property back to himself, with these two large structures in place, possibly as a way to retrofit the narrative.

The case hinged on this, because the building permits were based on Diter’s claim that there had always been a mas (farmhouse) on that part of the land, equal to the size of his other farmhouse, plus a pool, and thus he had the right to renovate everything. This, Diter insisted, not only erased the previous infractions but gave him the green light to renovate the original building, which had been grandfathered into the purchase.

Wrong, according to attorney Virginie Lachaut-Dana, who represents the Butts and other neighbors suing Diter.

Stephen and Caroline Butt on their property near Château Diter.

“If the urban-planning services knew that Monsieur Diter had built a 2,500-square-foot property with no authorization in this area, the building permits would have been denied,” she says. “Because urban-planning regulation only allows for an extension of existing construction,’ not ‘construction of a new building.’”

Judge Jean-Pierre Murciano, who was brought on to examine the case in 2012, concurs. Murciano also found the 2006 permit bizarre, because it was on a part of the land that had never been zoned for construction and because the original structures (the lean-tos) had been destroyed by Diter early on, thus nullifying the right to construct any further.

“The only thing Diter could have done and should have done was ‘repair or restore’ (keeping the walls and base in place) with maybe a leeway of adding on 20 percent tops. This we call an extension mesurée,” says Murciano.

Although Diter’s permit was declared void in 2012, much of the construction had already been done. Diter had chosen not to demolish anything. Instead he’d constructed more than 30,000 additional square feet, including the cloister, clock tower, and guesthouses.

“His tactic was to build a bit there and a bit here,” said Isabelle Rey-Lefebvre, a Le Monde journalist who broke the story in 2012 and who was interviewed in 2017 for a television program called 90 Minute Investigation. “But he wouldn’t cover it up, and then eventually he’d put in a second floor there, and then he’d cover it. And slowly and surely, things would grow.”

“By the time Diter had finished the majority of the work, what we discovered was beyond our imagination,” says City Councilman Paul Euzière.

According to Euzière, Diter had not only built his compound illegally but constructed a 700-yard private road leading down a hill from the house to connect to Route 9.

“Like everything Diter did, the road broke all zoning rules,” says Euzière. “This was done by bulldozing hillsides and natural habitats that had never been touched. It wasn’t only impactful environmentally, but it created an unsafe road, which was too skinny for two cars to pass. There’s no way for fire trucks to access the area. Plus, the road opens onto a hairpin turn onto a national road.”

Not Enough Red Tape

The road is the source of an ongoing dispute with the neighboring town of Auribeau. Its mayor, Jacques Varrone, claims the road Diter built now serves as a sort of aqueduct during torrential rains and has periodically flooded many of Auribeau’s farms.

“The natural terrain of the hill would normally absorb the water from these rains,” says Varrone, “but Diter’s now channels it into one dangerous torrent. Normally there are studies and what if scenarios done by planners before you build a road. None of that was done here. And this is the result.”

Château Diter and its environs.

Auribeau has sued Diter for damages in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Varrone also claims Diter connected his sewer line to Auribeau’s without authorization. All of this, Varrone says, wouldn’t have happened on his watch, had Diter been building on the Auribeau side.

“Sometimes France is critiqued for having too much administration,” he says. “But if it’s there (and it is) you should use it. We have local laws and the means to enforce work stoppages. But you have to have the will to enforce the law. I have a hard time understanding all of this.”

Documents obtained by Air Mail show that France’s department of highways and roads had warned local authorities as early as January 2015 that Diter’s road had been built illegally, was environmentally unsound, and should be closed immediately. But by then the road was being put to use transporting guests and crews for extravagant weddings and high-budget TV productions.

Party Central

Starting in 2012, Château Diter began marketing itself as a luxury-rental-and-wedding destination. A Web site at the time featured quality production Steadicam and drone shots of the sumptuous surroundings: the champagne receptions, the cake cutting, the elegant dancing and dining opportunities offered. There was an underground garage, a helicopter pad, and a parking lot for buses.

“The magic and exclusive” setting, noted the Web site, is “perfect for romantic marriages and other events with its stunning grounds surrounded by beautiful fountains, Roman columns and thematic stocked gardens” big enough to host “up to 2000 guests.” The site also promoted a sound system with more than 130 speakers.

In 2013, Château Diter hosted the wedding of Kunal Grover, son of Anglo-Indian business tycoon Kimi Grover, with much of Bollywood in attendance. The son of Richard Lepeu, then the deputy C.E.O. of Richemont SA, which owns Montblanc, also got married there. So did the Italian rugby star Mirco Bergamasco.

At this point, only a handful of neighbors had taken Diter to court. This changed when, as neighbors described it, parties started lasting four days, with guests arriving from as far away as India and Russia. There was loud music. There were fireworks. There were laser shows—and much of this was featured in the Web site’s promotional video.

“Sometimes it would start from Wednesday and end on Sunday. It was crazy,” says Pascal Piel, who lives on the other side of the valley from Diter.

Piel began using noise-detector equipment, which he pointed in the château’s direction. On busy days, the decibel level was almost double the norm.

“It was like having a washer machine running full blast in your garden while you’re having cocktails,” he says.

Within months a petition was brought to the city, demanding action—but nothing happened. Muriel Engel, another neighbor, testified in October of 2013 that following a raucous night at Château Diter, she visited the Grasse police the next morning only to be told that the wedding had all the proper permits.

Engel, 54, bought her 1,000-square-foot home in 1990. She runs a day-care service out of her home and assumed the area, as part of a preserved zone, would be peaceful for the children she is charged with watching. And it was, until Diter arrived and started his renovation.

“At the beginning, we accepted the noise from his construction, only because we’d renovated as well and understood this sometimes takes time. But after the year four or whatever it was, we started to wonder what was going on.”

Engel lives in the neighboring town of Auribeau, and from her side of the valley she could see Diter’s ongoing construction and the large scope it was taking on, something Diter contested.

“He maintained in court I couldn’t see what was going on, but I could. Right from my kitchen counter, I watched it grow and grow.”

Engel’s patience snapped after what she called a “Hindu wedding that lasted four days, from Friday night through Tuesday morning.”

“Each night would last until five A.M., just before we were getting up for work.” After the final day, Engel visited the Grasse police to formally file a complaint but was told that she couldn’t do so, because noise violations don’t qualify as grounds for a formal complaint. “Which was false,” says Engel. “But I didn’t know it at the time.” Engel claims the police told her that Diter had the proper authorizations to hold the event and that “I had two choices: either sell my home or get reinforced double-sided glass for my windows. They weren’t sympathetic at all to my plight. If anything, they made it seem like I was just some grouch who wanted to ruin the wedding festivities of some young couple on the most important day of their life.”

By 2016, Château Diter had become a location for TV and film productions as well, including the British series The X Factor and Riviera, a show starring Julia Stiles that depicts the lives of the Côte d’Azur jet set. These productions weren’t small, either, and soon the shuttling of actors, rented cars, and thousands of stand-ins would take its toll on neighbors’ ears.

Who Knew and When

To add to the insult, Euzière claims, there was never any tax levied on the business aspect of the wedding-hosting and château rental.

“Whereas your smallest hotel or bed and breakfast, even your average Airbnb owner, pays taxes,” Euzière says he was told Château Diter never did. “Well, they did, but do you want to know for how much? .89 centimes. That’s it, and the sum corresponds to the tax you pay for one night and one room rented.”

Euzière then hands me a promotional booklet published by the regional committee of Grasse called “L’Agenda Parfumé.” Amidst the golf packages and perfumery tours, and a foreword written by Grasse’s mayor, there’s a cutout ad featuring Château Diter.

“I find it curious that the town of Grasse was promoting a château that is not only being sanctioned by the town of Grasse, they’re saying they’re not aware of its activity. And yet here they are plugging it in the brochure.”

Some feel Diter never could have done this alone, that his bold construction and wedding-reception brazenness only could have happened had he been enabled by local authorities and a regional press willing to turn a blind eye.

“What’s curious about this affair is that dating all the way back to 2005 there were procès-verbaux [formal testimonies taken by civil-service inspectors] detailing what they saw,” says Murciano, “and yet, the first real decision against Diter didn’t arrive until 2012, when a work permit he claimed justified the work was overruled. That’s seven years.”

Caroline Butt agrees: “Many people, especially on the inspection side, the civil-servant side, did their job of examining the sites and issuing the fines and work stoppages. It was only the political elite that didn’t follow up on that hard work.”

“It was like having a washer machine running full blast in your garden while you’re having cocktails.”

In 2017, a TV crew posing as a couple interested in renting Château Diter for their wedding filmed their visit and interaction with Diter’s wife, Monica. You hear Ms. Diter providing a quote of 79,000 euros ($88,000) for the weekend, and saying that the château itself hosts three to four big events per year. When the couple voices their apprehension about renting a venue shrouded in legal trouble, Monica reassures them, “Don’t worry. We’ll appeal and appeal and appeal.”

“Diter, I think, was banking on a war of attrition,” says Euzière. “That he’d just wear down his opponents to the point where they’d give up or maybe negotiate a middle ground. I think he underestimated the determination of the neighbors, the Butts in particular.”

Stephen Butt is a London-based asset manager whose firm, Silchester, was cited in the Financial Times in 2018 as “the quiet investor behind Europe’s big fund houses.”

Diter wasn’t shy about bringing up the wealth (or the nationality) of his neighbor during an interview with Le Parisien in June 2017.

“This is a story about a rich woman, a French woman who married a rich Englishman and took half of his fortune and who’s bored, completely bored, and who’s set her sights on getting Patrick Diter,” he told Le Parisien. “It’s crazy that a person who doesn’t live here can say they’re bothered by the noise, bothered by the view, that I bother them for everything, and yet here they live in London, in a château inside London.”

“It’s not just about us,” contends Caroline Butt. “It’s about a neighborhood full of different people, each of whom are entitled to peace and quiet at night. It’s about our friends here who come home from work and should be able to sleep at night without noise. Do they not count?”

In October 2017, Paris Match seized on Diter’s same populist message, running an exclusive feature on the château with the headline “Should We Destroy a Masterpiece?” The magazine went on to explain how Diter was not an heir to a grand fortune but a self-made man who’d poured his life into the château, doing a lot of the grunt work himself.

And some of this is true. Whatever your opinion of the final product is, it can’t be said Diter skimped. The hand-painted wall motifs, the imported stones from Burgundy and wrought-iron gates from Marseilles all point to a labor of love, albeit a twisted one.

“We have nothing to say about Mr. Diter personally,” says Caroline Butt. “We only have a problem with what he’s done and how he’s done it. It’s not what I say. It’s what the mapping photos say in 2000 or what the courts have said since 2012. These speak for themselves.”

“We’ve continued to fight because Stephen and I can’t get the 17 years of our life back now. That’s 17 years we’ve invested in our home and our garden. We’re also fighting against a two-speed justice that enforced the law with vigor on the average citizen, but in other cases didn’t.”

Echoes of antiquity: the lawn at Château Diter.

Judgment Day

Since 2016, the judgments against Diter have been piling up. In May 2016, a court reprimanded him for taking on a renovation “démesuré” (excessive, disproportionate), citing that he’d started with a structure listed as 2,000 square feet and made it into something close to 30,000 square feet. In June of 2017, the Grasse courts ordered the property to be destroyed, with the prosecutor in one case, Pierre-Jean Gaury, describing Diter’s palace as a “pharaonic project, delusional, totally illegal and built illegally.”

Then, on March 25, 2019, the appellate court of Aix-en-Provence reaffirmed the circuit courts’ earlier decisions, declaring the property illegal, thereby sealing Château Diter’s fate. The court ordered destruction of the château begin within 18 months, while also issuing Diter a fine of $500,000.

“It’s only been since the March 25 judgment that I feel the tide is turning in our favor,” says Caroline Butt. “Before that, it was like this giant mountain in front of us. I had read somewhere where only 2 to 3 percent of cases like ours could be won. And now to see court decision after court decision on every level siding in our favor is encouraging. This isn’t to say we’re done. There will be further delays, I’m sure.”

“A pharaonic project, delusional, totally illegal and built illegally.”

One already is in place. Diter immediately filed for a pourvoi en cassation, an attempt to appeal the case based on procedural grounds. An examination of the dossier could take months, and could result in still more delays, pushing back the day of destruction.

Considering that French tax authorities have listed the château’s value at close to $64 million, some are debating whether the property could be put to better use. Some have advocated the idea of the state seizing the property and using it as a retirement home or a school. Something that could bring jobs and tax revenue to the township.

“It’s true if you look at the château on its own and you put aside what was done illegally—and believe me, I’m in agreement with the judgment, don’t get me wrong—but when you hear it might be destroyed, I can’t help but think of all the work that went into it,” says Varrone, Auribeau’s mayor. “It’s the work of men, the work of quality and noble materials. And if you think of it in that way, maybe it’s best to confiscate the property instead of destroying it. I don’t know. We’re talking in the abstract here anyway.”

Diter’s bedroom, with a vermeil starburst headboard.

“Unfortunately, this option would create precedent,” says Judge Murciano, “and it would upend the current law in place while sending a message that other developers can push the limits and maybe, in the end, keep their large, illegally constructed villas even if they were never permitted. Plus, you can’t confiscate something that, legally, doesn’t exist.”

Also, Lachaut-Dana, the attorney for the Butts, contends that the state must comply with the judicial sentence rendered: “In our case, the judicial sentences ordered the demolition of the property. It is therefore impossible for the state to seize the propriété Diter.”

Lachaut-Dana is quick to point out that even the name, Château Diter, can be contested.

“From a legal point of view, ‘Château Diter’ is inaccurate,” says Lachaut-Dana. “Monsieur Diter decided to call his own property ‘château,’ but he has no title to do so. The original name of the propery is Domaine du Couloubrier, and the main house (la maison de maître) has already been sold to Monsieur and Madame Butt. As a consequence, what is being called Château Diter is in fact a farmhouse of 250 square meters (a guardian house) and all the illegal square meters constructed.”

In February of 2018, the DRAC (the national department charged with protecting French cultural heritage) shot down the idea of classifying Château Diter as a historic monument, citing a “lack of authenticity presented” and that the dossier included “contentious aspects.”

Since Diter repeatedly refused to show structural-engineering studies and compliance certificates regarding any of the work he has done, the Butts claim it’s impossible to assume any of it is structurally sound.

“The place is dangerous to even have a house on let alone a retirement home,” says Euzière, who recalls a giant wildfire that ravaged the same area in 1997. “It’s like building a hotel in a flood zone. No matter what, even if it is functioning now, the risk of flood (or in this case fire) is too much. The land has been zoned because of these things.”

The case of Château Diter isn’t the first time houses of the rich and famous have been deemed illegally built in Provence. In 2015, Inès de La Fressange, the muse for Karl Lagerfeld and a face of Chanel, was ordered by courts to destroy a hilltop villa on her estate in nearby Tarascon for similar reasons.

Diter the Fall Guy

Despite the March 25 ruling, and although Diter is facing other lawsuits dealing with myriad alleged infractions as well as his illegal road, Murciano is afraid the destruction of Château Diter will conveniently cover up other unsavory aspects of the case.

“There was a key moment where the courts decided to limit the Diter case just to permit infractions, when, in reality, this was more than just a question of urbanism,” he says. “You have the prefect from the region in 2015 telling the national prosecutor that Diter had obtained these permits fraudulently with the help of Grasse, and yet, the city of Grasse suddenly turns and says it’s a victim of the whole thing. That Mr. Diter had deceived them?”

Euzière adds, “There were outlandish things going on. Château Diter hadn’t paid taxes as a place of business, and yet there had been no audit. Fire-code regulations were never inspected. An illegal road was built.”

There is a compromising photo circulating of a wedding for the daughter of a local security deputy held at Château Diter in 2013, which shows Mr. and Mrs. Diter at the same table as the current mayor of Grasse, the current director of financial services of Grasse, the director of communication of Grasse, Mr. Diter’s architect, and a slew of high-level police and transportation secretaries.

Despite repeated requests, Grasse’s mayor’s office has yet to respond to Air Mail’s questions.

Château Diter, near Grasse.

“Of course I made errors,” admitted Diter in an interview with Le Parisien. “I’ve made errors my entire life. Who hasn’t made errors? I’ve built over fifty houses. This is the last house I’ve built. They can destroy it. If that’s the choice of the authorities, we’ll take it down. That’s fine. It won’t cost me money. But it will cost the community. It’s a work of art now. I worked with the ‘grands artistes.’ I’m the example of the guy who comes from the street, who doesn’t have access to what’s up there on high. And I guess I flew too high, you know, and they had to cut my wings. I guess I didn’t fit the bill of what was accepted here.”

Caroline Butt refuses to accept the image of the rich outsider, which has been sometimes portrayed in the press.

“Everything my husband and I have today is thanks to hard work and being straight with people. Plus the fact that we don’t give up,” she says.

As of late June, the Diters were still living in the château. Neighbors say they once again hear helicopters overhead. But no tour buses full of wedding guests or laser shows—yet.

Muriel Engel has her doubts. “But now it’s seeming as if he were to keep the château as is, it would require a lot of upkeep, which means it’s going to need revenue, which probably means more of those 600-person marriages,” she said.

Having tried unsuccessfully to meet or speak with the Diters, I made it a point to visit the château before departing Grasse, walking up the illegally constructed road, where I was met by a giant gate, the initials “CD,” for Château Diter, welded in steel, next to an array of security cameras and intercoms. I then tried Château Diter’s “real” address, where, again, a high wall of barbed wire and cameras hid everything within. Gone was the charm I’d seen in the promotional films or brochures in the Grasse tourism catalogue. The place resembled bin Laden’s bunker in Abbottabad more than it did a French country house. There was barbed wire here and there, plastic water drums stacked high, a vegetable garden, and a greenhouse, all of which seemed to suggest that the château was hunkering down for a long fight.

The only way to see Château Diter now is from a far hill facing the property from the west. From there, I was able to spot that long staircase drifting down from the wedding cupola, the clock tower rising from the cloister, and the stone walls still holding up the olive trees. A slight spring breeze wafted through the trees, and everything stood still. A goat bell clinked nearby. Soon this could all be gone, I realized. The Provence hillsides would reclaim what was theirs, and eventually the “CD” atop the heavy gates, the emblem for one man’s dream, would be torn down and sold for scrap.

And for years to come, all that would remain would be the wild rosemary and the hillside shadows, an allegory to a modern-day French Gatsby whose ball at the roulette wheel, just like those in the nearby casinos of Cannes and Nice, had bounced and bounced and bounced for years, hushing breaths and fascinating eyes, until it too eventually fell.

John von Sothen is an American writer living in Paris and the author of a memoir, Monsieur Mediocre, released this May by Viking Press (Penguin Random House).

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