The Death Of The French Countryside

Over the next decade 1,500 French villages and 200,000 farms will be left to rot. That explains those cheap holiday homes - but what does it all mean for La France Profonde?
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The Independent Culture
VALLIERES is a solidly pretty, stone-built town of 500 people in Creuse, 300 miles south of Paris, in the green heart of France. It has a cornucopia of small shops and businesses which would be unthinkable in any town or village of the same size in Britain: five cafes, two restaurants, two grocers, two butchers, a bakery, a hardware store, two electrical- goods shops, two general and gift shops, a bank, a garage, a chemist's shop and a post office.

Vallieres is the postcard image of the quietly civilised life - the art de vivre - of small-town, rural France. Or, rather, it once was. Look again.

Another six shops or bars around the main square are closed. The patisserie down the street has a large sign saying "a vendre". The menu outside the hotel two doors away reads "hotel ferme definitivement". A large, startlingly beautiful townhouse on the square is derelict. So is the elaborate presbytery just outside the town centre. Everywhere there are houses shuttered and for sale. Even in the middle of a working day the town seems quiet, unpeopled, sad.

We waited for a long time to find someone to talk to. Presently, down the main street came an old man; he told us that he was 77 and a retired farmer but refused to divulge his name. It was a bitter cold morning. He was wearing a flat cap, a thick brown jumper, youthful cotton slacks and tartan carpet slippers. He walked with a home-made cane.

What had happened to this town? Why were the businesses closing down? Why were so many houses empty? "Ah," he said. "Didn't you know? All the people have gone to live up there." He pointed with his cane. "Up on the road to Fellatin. They're all sleeping up there now. In the cemetery."

Rural de-population, and the loss of country shops and business, schools and post offices, is not just a French problem. But it is felt more acutely in France. Why? Partly because the country still regards itself as rooted in the rural way of life; partly because the identity and art de vivre of small rural towns is part of the justification - and a pretty good justification - for the "exception francaise", France's different, more interventionist, way of doing things, economically and politically. The changes are more noticeable, also, because the emptiest parts of France are not on the periphery, as in Britain, but right in the middle.

The small-town France beloved of British (and other) tourists is far from doomed; there are thousands of small towns and villages which continue to thrive, or at least to resist. But there are many hundreds of others - within a 600-mile long, diagonal stripe of rural de-population from the Belgian border to the Pyrenees - which are demographically ageing and commercially sick, like Vallieres. It is predicted that, over the next 10 to 15 years, 1,500 of the smallest of them will, in effect, vanish from the map.

CREUSE, in the north-western foothills of the Massif Central, is one of the most obscure of the 95 departements of metropolitan France: it has long been a byword for emptiness. There is an old French saying: "Even crows pack a picnic basket when they fly over Creuse." Its very name - after the river which bisects it - has a ring of emptiness: "creux" means "hollow" in French; "creuser" means "to dig" or "empty out".

Creuse is not a barren or mountainous area: it has pretty, often beautiful, rather English-looking countryside; as the English countryside used to be and is still portrayed in children's books. Coming to Creuse for the first time, you have a sense of entering a lost world - or Housman's "world of lost content". The fields and small woods roll on over endless horizons; there are few cars on the roads; the streams are unsullied; the air is sweet.

And yet Creuse is losing population faster than any other departement in France. Every year 1,000 babies are born in Creuse; and 2,000 people die. Young people drift away (admittedly in smaller numbers these days, because of the poor urban job market); roughly the same number of strangers arrive, attracted, paradoxically, by the emptiness of the place. Each year the population of Creuse (128,000 people in an area the size of Wiltshire) shrinks by, roughly, those 1,000 missing babies.

The problem is not unique to Creuse; there are 36 other French departements with similar problems. Creuse is the epicentre of a still rumbling social earthquake, which has shrunk the population of La France Profonde, destroyed hundreds of small communities, but left the countryside (mostly) intact. Did you ever wonder where all those cheap French holiday and retirement homes were coming from?

The emptying of the French countryside started in the late 19th century; the demography of rural France then suffered a devastating blow in the trenches of the First World War, from which it has never really recovered. Farmers and the sons of farmers - regarded as an inferior and expendable species - were herded in disproportionate numbers into the ranks of the infantry.

And yet as recently as the mid-1960s, there were three million farms in France, sheltered by protectionism and relatively poor internal distribution of food. There are now just 630,000, and that number is still falling. There are two million farmers and farm-workers - less than 7 per cent of the active population, compared to 20 per cent in 1973. (This is something that is usually forgotten when analysing the high level of joblessness in France.)

We tend to think of France as an immobile country. But France has undergone a fast-forward agricultural revolution in the last 30 years; finally emulating changes which took place in Britain over 100 years, some would say over 180 years, right back to William Cobbett's Rural Rides. In the next decade, it is forecast that another 200,000 farms will disappear.

Of course, the farmland does not disappear; only the farmers and their families disappear. The average size of farms in Creuse has nearly tripled in the last 25 years. Tiny farms cling on, until the farmer dies or retires, but the average farm size in the departement - 139 acres - is now not much different from similar, cattle-rearing country in Britain.

The French government's official definition of "desertification" is 30 people per square kilometre. By that measure, half of the world's fourth- largest industrial economy is now a desert - a "green desert" as one journalist in Creuse put to me.

Desert is an absurd word. There is little actual desertification in France, on the pattern of, say, the Great Plains in the United States. But it is a fact that the population of large parts of southern Creuse, and other, similar areas in central France, has fallen to less than 10 people per sq km: three times less than the official definition of a "desert".

Here is a paradox: these changes have coincided with the creation and the heyday and the gradual reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - which in the Daily Mail's demonology is an efficient machine for taking money out of British pockets and putting it into the overalls of lazy, wealthy French peasants. French farm productivity, fertilised by money from Brussels, has exploded in the last 20 years, making France the second- largest agricultural producer in the world, after the US (in terms of value). But not all French farmers, or regions, or types of farming, have benefited equally.

Some of the changes, everyone concedes, were inevitable. The Brussels farm policy initially eased the transition from a doomed peasant-scale agriculture to something more sustainable. In the longer run, however, the CAP - by boosting intensive, industrial farming at the expense of traditional methods - has been a slow, and long-unrecognised, disaster for the economy of places like Creuse.

And yet only last month farmers from this and neighbouring departements drove in convoy all the way to Brussels to protest against reforms in the CAP system which are intended to help them.

What is going on? To try to find out, I travelled with a photographer for three days and over 300 miles on the back roads of the southern part of Creuse. We never saw a traffic light.

LE CROIZET-CHATEAU. We had been driving up and down the small roads in the far south-east of the departement, on the borders of the Auvergne. The country reminded me - pleasantly and painfully - of the Peak District countryside in which I was brought up as a child. But there was far more of it; and it was much emptier than the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border in the 1950s. We drove for 20 minutes at a time without seeing a car; we saw scores and scores of abandoned farmsteads, dozens of abandoned shops and bars, and some obstinate operating ones. (More than 50,000 small rural businesses - mostly food and clothes shops - have closed in France in the last 20 years.)

The fields were well-tended and dotted with the fawny-red Limousin cattle. What we couldn't find anywhere on a bright Monday afternoon was people.

We needed people to subject to questioning - and people for the photographs. Lots of pictures of empty buildings with no people near them begin to look like, well, any estate agent's window in Creuse. We needed to find people before the light faded. Eventually, Gilles, the photograper, shouted in triumph: he had seen someone. "Un pepe avec des moutons" (a grandad with some sheep).

We walked up a muddy lane and found, near a half-tumbled-down village, an old man in a beret, who was sweet and talkative but rather scared of us: three people together, hereabouts, is a rarity. He was cutting a hedge with a Hardy-esque billhook, so as to let more sun into his vegetable garden; they were not his sheep; they were just watching him - and us. There had once been 106 people in the village, he said, precisely. There were now "quandmeme" - 12 or so. He seemed surprised it was that many.

"There's just a few of us old people left now. The young won't stay in a place like this, you know. I am a bachelor but I have a niece. She wouldn't stay. She's in the town now. Just a few more years, we'll be gone and it'll all be over here." He shrugged and shuffled off. "You should go now," he said.

MARGNAT. Joel Bialoux does not wear a beret. He wears jeans and trainers. He could have been scooped from the street in Paris or London, but he is - if it exists - the future of agriculture in Creuse and La France Profonde.

Joel is 28 and farms 375 acres near Aubusson. He took over half the land from his father, when he retired (with EU aid) five years ago; Joel has added the rest. Eighteen years ago, this one farm was 11 different farms. Joel is renting it from the former farmers or from their children. "Around three quarters of the people I rent from live in Paris," he said.

Joel and his wife, Marie-Claire, have 80 suckling cows, lovely, white, shaggy Charolais. With the calves and older animals being fattened for market, they have 250 animals in all. Essentially, his methods are traditional and completely "organic": the animals are fed purely on natural grass without chemical fertilisers; they are kept in winter on home-grown hay and cereals. Joel sells to a local butcher and - through intermediaries - to the Hippopotamus steak restaurants and the Carrefour supermaket chain, which labels the meat as grass-fed quality produce.

To this traditional approach, Joel has brought a touch of the high-tech. The roomy new cattle-sheds are equipped with surveillance cameras so that he and his wife can monitor the screen in their house - even in their bedroom - to check on expectant cows.

Even at this scale and level of development, Joel says that it is going to be difficult to keep up with loans and make a reasonable profit in the face of the over-production of beef in the world, falling demand and EU plans to reduce the level of price support by 30 per cent in coming years. He is - typically - suspicious of the plans of Brussels, and the present French agriculture minister Louis LePensec, to move to a system of more direct income subsidies to farmers in areas like Creuse, taking account of "contribution to the environment and rural heritage".

"Fine," he says, "as long as it is not taken too far. I don't want to become a gardener or a park-keeper. Creuse is not a garden. The Massif Central is not a garden. I'm not interested in being here just to maintain the countryside in the way that townspeople and tourists think that it should look. Our future must be based, finally, on production: of producing food of high quality and persuading enough consumers to pay extra for naturally produced, good-tasting meat."

Joel admits that there is a political problem. French agriculture policy - pushed by farm unions which are dominated by the big cereal interests of northern France - has been too much driven by the desire for more and more productivity at high, artificially inflated prices; not by a drive for quality and markets which would have better served regions like Creuse.

AUBUSSON. Are you looking for a French holiday home? Would you like to retire to France or work there over the Internet or telephone? Forget the fashionable areas, where only the ugly houses are left and even those are expensive. Consider a pretty but unfashionable area; consider Creuse. In an estate agent's window in Aubusson, the second city of Creuse (pop. 11,000), the prices begin at pounds 6,000 for a substantial ruin. Modest houses in need of renovation go for pounds 11,000 upwards. A small farm near Bellegarde - a stunningly pretty area east of Aubusson - is going for pounds 16,500. Lovely farmhouses already part-modernised go for pounds 40,000. A modest chateau will cost you pounds 200,000. These prices are abbout half to a third what you might be asked to pay in the traditional holiday areas to the south or west.

There are 12,000 empty houses in Creuse.

GENTIOUX (pop. 300; turn-of-century pop. 1,800). Gentioux was one of the main towns of the celebrated masons of Creuse, wandering builders who, in effect, rebuilt Paris in the 19th century. With one exception, they left nothing memorable behind here, save a rather dull little town high on the Plateau de Millevaches (plateau of a thousand cows). The great exception is a profoundly moving war memorial, one of only four of its kind in France. The memorial has none of the usual stoicism and patrioticism. It is headed "our dear children" and then below the 63 names, it carries the inscription "Maudite soit la guerre" (curse all war). Alongside there is a statue of an orphan boy in baggy trousers and clogs, staring at the names of all the dead papas or the sons who were never papas. It is said that, to this day, French soldiers passing by on their way to manoeuvres are ordered to turn their heads rather than gaze on this monument to grief and pacifism.

We had an appointment with the Mayor of Gentioux, Philippe Desrozier, a brisk, bearded 49-year-old who teaches physics. Mr Desrozier belongs to the something-will-turn-up school of politics. De-population, he says, has stabilised (statistics suggest this is not really so); there is the beginning of a new inward emigration of educated city-dwellers, who leave their families in Creuse during the week.

The problem, he concedes, is the sheer number of small towns in France and the sheer size of the country's emptying heartland. Unlike in Britain - or in England anyway - there are huge stretches of country too far from a big town to make daily commuting a sensible proposition. "The little towns grew up as markets for the farmers ... but with the smaller farms gone and the bigger farms buying in bulk and selling their produce on the national market, there is no need for many of these towns any more. Unless you can invent a different need ... We've been doing that here, bringing in new work such as a clinic for physically disabled people, providing 35 jobs. But there are a lot of small towns out there. Not all can be lucky. Not all fight either."

CHALLEIX. Creuse may be the backwoods but you would not necessarily expect to run into headhunters, especially not British headhunters. But in a prettily converted farmhouse, with stunning views over the hills of southern Creuse, we visited one of the departement's most thriving businesses.

Julian and Christine Last, from London and Bedfordshire, are international talent scouts. From two separate rooms in their house, they run, not one, but two businesses, following telephone trails from one contact to another all around the globe to find recruits for senior executive positions. Downstairs, Christine, who is 51 and has long been in the trade, specialises in the pharmaceutical industry. Upstairs, Julian, who is 49 and used to be an advertising executive with Saatchi and Saatchi, specialises in the advertising and marketing industries.

Their work, covering three continents, is conducted entirely by telephone, fax and e-mail from their house in the tiny village of Challeix. They are the second biggest customers for France Telecom in the entire departement, second only to the tapestry factory in Aubusson.

The Lasts bought their house as a holiday home 15 years ago and set up business here three years ago. Since they arrived in 1983, 16 people in the village have died. Its permanent population is now just nine. Apart from one farmer, who retires later this year, the Lasts are the only people in Challeix who work.

"The transition from holidaymakers to people running a business was a bit difficult for people to grasp at first," said Christine. "They'd walk in and there might be three different phones ringing. Once, the old lady from over the way called in and I was on the phone to Australia at 18 francs a minute, at the crucial moment in some negotiation. She kept banging on the window shouting, 'Il y a quelqu'un, il y a quelqu'un' (there is somebody here). She couldn't understand why I didn't run and open the door."

"It wouldn't suit everyone; you have to be self-sufficient, emotionally and psychologically," said Julian. "There's no going down to the pub with people after the office, which, I suppose, may not be entirely a bad thing."

When the phones go quiet, the Lasts spend their time horseriding or walking with their two dogs in the emptiness of Creuse. "I can ride for three hours in the hills over there without seeing a soul or even a road," said Christine. "In the spring the whole place is alive in wild flowers. There is astonishing birdlife all through the year. In a way, for me, the fewer people there are the more I like it. But it's true that we could do with a few more people ... there is a sadness about the place, a sort of resignation, as they see the villages dying little by little."

ST-GEORGES NIGREMONT. We were strolling around a neat, hilltop village - it didn't take long - taking photographs and snooping at the town-hall notices. (The commune had decided to subsidise the trip of two local children to a "seaside class", despite the "heavy burden" on local, public funds.) After a while, a nobly erect, scruffily dressed, silver-haired man, slightly resembling Francois Mitterrand, came out of a house and made a pretence of doing something in the church. He opened the door and locked it again. Clearly, he wanted to know what we were up to. We told him. Could he see a copy of the article? Yes, of course, where should I send it? "Send it to the Mayor," he said. But how would the Mayor know ... the centime dropped: was he the Mayor? "Yes, they tell me that I am." His faraway brown eyes twinkled. "But you know there are only seven or eight of us living here now ... not including the suburbs."

Andre Tourteau, 73, Mayor of St-Georges Nigremont, left Creuse to teach in Clermont Ferrand but came back after retirement and has led the campaign to save the village from extinction. "We have no money so we did the repair work mostly ourselves. The place was dying and I thought that a place like this shouldn't die."

He took us to look at the 1914-18 war memorial. It had 33 names on it; four times more people than now live in the village.

PONTARION. Jacky Guillon, 46, is the King Canute of Creuse. He is the Mayor of one of the few small towns in Creuse to have gained population in recent years. He is also a regional councillor and head of a "community" of 18 communes (local districts) trying to fight the tide of de-population.

"I used to teach in the suburbs of Paris," he said. "I know the problems you get by squeezing too many people together, as well as the problems you get by losing too many people from a place like this. We have a crazy situation now in France where all the people are being squashed into small areas, and others are being left empty." (Half of France now contains 10 per cent of its population - five million people, compared to 12 million 20 years ago. Every large conurbation in big, empty, supposedly over-planned France has a problem with air pollution.)

"It is not rational or sensible and, in the end, it may be that the problem provides its own solution. People like the Lasts - and many others - are coming to places like Creuse because you can breathe here, the air is clean and the nature wonderful.

"The future for Creuse is to go out and look for people, first, maybe, as tourists, because many who come for a holiday fall in love with the place and come back to stay. But we must also sell ourselves directly as the kind of place where, with the new communications, the new industry of information, educated, enterprising people can live well, economically and physically."

As soon as I got back to Paris, the sore throat and dry cough I had had for weeks mysteriously returned. I spoke on the phone to Professor Bernard Kayser, from the University of Toulouse, one of the great experts, and original thinkers, on the problems of rural France.

Professor Kayser is not entirely pessimistic. He points out that those villages and small towns within 30 miles of larger French cities are turning into "rurban" commuter areas, on the British model. Other country areas with a good product to sell - a well-known wine or cheese, a thriving tourist industry - are resisting well enough. The problem is that the remainder of the country - a pretty big remainder, up to 30 per cent of France - the areas, like Creuse, which are far from cities, empty and quietly beautiful but with no particular topographical, architectural or culinary splendours. For these areas, he says, every little thing can help: "telecottaging" like the Lasts, small high-tech industries. But the ultimate survival of such places, and the French landscape we all love - a cultivated landscape - demands a backbone of traditional-but- updated agriculture, like the farm run by Joel Bialoux.

The economic pressures on such farms will continue: in some respects they have only just begun. The trend away from red meat, the continuing reform of the CAP, the enlargement of the EU to eastern Europe will produce new problems in the next 10 years. After much lip-service and hypocrisy in the past, it will be up to the French government to decide how much it really values the countryside.

Professor Kayser says: "There is now a serious conflict of interest in France between the family agriculture, which is neither very small nor old-fashioned any more, and the 'mega-agri' businesses in the north." French farm policy - and to a large extent EU farm policy - have traditionally been driven by the economic clout of the second, with the political cover and justification of defending the first.

"The present government's proposals [more direct aid based on environmental and social considerations] are a significant new departure and a step in the right direction. But you'll see. They will be resisted every step of the way by the big farm federations, dominated by the big cereal interests. They don't want to let go a CAP founded on artificial price support, which has made them very rich. Neither do the smaller farmers - for a jumble of reasons, partly psychological. They don't like to feel they are 'on assistance'. But some form of direct aid, plus the creation and marketing of quality brands, is their future."

And yet it was precisely the smaller, family farmers who marched on Brussels last month to protest against the changes. "No surprise there," said Professor Kayser. "French farmers have never liked the CAP but they are always against the reform of the CAP."

There will be more demonstrations in the coming months and years: there will be tractor barricades, tyre-burning, attacks on foreign produce. You will be told that the demonstrators - almost always smaller farmers - are fighting for the survival of the family farm, for the economy and soul of rural France, for places like Creuse. But this will be, to a large extent, a lie. They will be fighting to preserve a system which is no longer in their interests.

Like their grandfathers and great-grandfathers before them, they will be a kind of political cannon fodder, an infantry sent into battle to serve the interests of others.