European Times Normandy: Country no place for muck and muddle

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The Independent Online
HE LOOKS too frail to be a farmer. He looks like a character from a Thomas Hardy novel: a dreamy, hunched, young man, born by mischance into a life of rural drudgery. Despite his outdoor life (a life in which he has no use for doors, as we will see) he looks pale and sickly and depressed. He smiles a lot, mostly apologetically.

Jean-Michel is our neighbour: a dairy farmer in the hill village in Normandy where we recently bought a small house for weekends and holidays. My conversations - everyone's conversations - with Jean-Michel tend to be limited to a few words about the weather (or since this is Normandy, the rain) and whatever minor atrocity he has committed that day (for which he is always sincerely sorry).

Jean-Michel is a menace; a rural sociopath; an agricultural down and out. He is a character from Cold Comfort Farm alive, but not especially well, in the French countryside; a French Eddie Grundy.

He seems always to be balancing on the edge of a new disaster, which is, presumably, why the only other active farmer in the village calls him, despairingly, "L'Acrobate". "Il est la, l'acrobate?" (Is he there, the acrobat?) asks Andre, the other farmer, coming to our gate, as if he is convinced that Jean-Michel must be hiding in our garden. Usually it is because Jean-Michel's long-suffering but free-spirited cows have escaped again and are eating Andre's much greener grass.

Jean-Michel's home is a scene of pre-medieval squalor, in which the kitchen floor joins seamlessly with the farm yard. I've never been inside but I've often seen inside: Jean-Michel never shuts his door, even at night, even when it is minus 8C outside. Here, he lives with a mysteriously urban and gentle-seeming woman - a relatively new addition to his life - who is viewed suspiciously by the locals (all 14 of them). She is known as "la copine": The girlfriend.

Small wonder that Jean-Michel's animals wander. His fields are full of unappetising weeds. Their boundaries are marked by pieces of string, reinforced by electric fences he forgets to switch on.

He has a tendency to get up later than dairy farmers are meant to. Towards the end of the morning, the cows become impatient, and uncomfortable, and make their own way down to the milking parlour. On cold, rainy mornings when he does remember to get up, Jean-Michel herds the cows through the mist in his battered, white Renault 4.

He proudly told me that he had 28 milking cows - by no means a small herd by French standards. They are huge beasts of the increasingly rare, Norman race, which are being driven out by the black-and-white Friesians that have conquered the dairy world. (Authentic Norman cows have prettily indistinct, white and grey markings, like Friesians which have been through the wash too often.)

Unlike their owner, Jean-Michel's cattle seem healthy and content. The milk they produce goes to make camemberts in the shiny camembert factory down in the valley, which churns out 10,000 cheeses a day. Some stubborn gourmets insist that true cam-embert should be produced from only the Norman breed of cows but that rule had to be abandoned years ago.

Jean-Michel is a local boy, formerly a farm labourer. His career as a farmer - he took the tenancy only two years ago - is doomed to be short- lived. The career of such a hopeless farmer might have been doomed, in the long run, at any place or at any time. But Jean-Michel's activities are threatened by other factors: The forces of modernisation and hygiene, tourism and market demands and European Union rules, which are reshaping the French countryside, for good or bad.

The cow-sheds and milking parlour of Jean-Michel's farm - nearer to our house than his and two feet deep in freezing, liquid manure - have been condemned (quite rightly) as failing EU-imposed, hygiene standards. Rather than invest in new buildings, his absentee landlord has decided to convert the cow-sheds into "gites rurales" or basic dwellings for summer tourists.

Within a year, Jean-Michel will be ousted; his land and EU milk quota will be let to another farmer, most likely to the competent Andre (who owns nothing but standard-issue Friesians). In the past 30 years, 1,300,000 French farms have disappeared in this way; there are about 700,000 left but another 200,000 are expected to go in the next two decades. Hence all those cheap, French country houses.

When Jean-Michel goes, our village, which has lived principally from agriculture for more than 1,000 years, will be down to its last farm.

The cow-muck encrusted roads, which Jean-Michel is supposed to scrub but does not, will become clean roads. Self-willed Norman cows will disappear. Tourists - the likes of us - will arrive in greater numbers. Jean-Michel will, doubtless, go on the dole and be a much happier man.

The village will, like several other post-agricultural villages within walking distance, become tidier, prettier, but still and unreal: Without liquid manure or soul.