French move south to live in the sun

As French roads and railways move into the busiest season of the year, hope has emerged that the seasonal migration south might slacken in years to come - if only because more people will be living there already.

A new survey suggests that the French population is moving south to the sunbelt, despite the ingrained attachment of French people to their native regions. The study, published by the official statistics office, shows southern urban areas occupying the top five places in terms of growth by migration between 1982 and 1990, and the city of Montpellier topping the list, if migration and natural growth - births over deaths - are added together.

With a population of 210,000, Montpellier is the ninth largest city in France, but it is small in terms of conurbations because, unlike Paris, Lyons or Marseilles, it has swallowed up fewer of its neighbouring towns and villages. If the trend to growth continues, however, this may be just a matter of time.

Topping the list of urban areas whose population has increased over the period include Grasse, Cannes, Antibes and Toulouse in the south-west, and Nice and Toulon, both on the Riviera. One explanation for the growth of Montpellier and Toulouse is their orientation toward new-technology industries - Toulouse in aerospace and Montpellier in telecommunications.

This would not, however, explain the increase in and around Cannes, or in Nice, where jobs in traditional areas such as hotels and catering or the perfume industry have remained static. The explanation, at least in part, is likely to be quality of life - a conclusion supported by the fact that the people are moving away from Paris, Lyons, Rheims and from the biggest southern conurbation, Marseilles. All "top five" urban areas enjoy not just a mild climate, but easy access to attractive countryside, and winter and summer sports.

One jaded commentator from one of the less favoured areas of the country had no doubt about the region's chief attraction. "We would love it if all those people leaving Paris or Lyons decided to settle in Nevers or Cosne [in central France] rather than in Cannes or Toulouse ... But can we really offer them any good reason to prefer the countryside of Nevers to the beaches of the Mediterranean or the banks of the Garonne? That would take rather an effort."

Not all the moves are southward, however. The net population increase in the more desirable southern cities masks the fact that some make the move only to return north a few months, or years, later. The reason they give most often is "cultural difference": France's northerners can find the south infuriatingly slow and casual, dislike the pervasive clientelism of the Mediterranean and find themselves longing for a little more "Anglo- Saxon order".

They are in a minority, however. The rest find that the sun and the sea more than compensate for the irritations, and they will doubtless be sitting over their pastis at this very moment, complaining about the annual invasion of the tourists.