John Lichfield: Our Man In Paris

Village keeps its soul as commuterland's blandness advances


Menaced by the irresistible advance of a brainless alien culture, there is one French village which has sworn never to surrender.

That may sound like the start of an Asterix story but we are talking of the present, not of Roman times. The community in question is not a Gaulish hamlet but a pretty village of warm stones with a moated château and a medieval church.

Janvry could be anywhere in rural France. It is, in fact, 20 miles south of central Paris. Creeping forward on all sides are the motorways, superstores, bungalows, tyre franchises, fast-food restaurants and furniture showrooms which have turned the outer suburbs of greater Paris into America-sur-Seine.

Janvry has found a magic potion to resist submission to commuter-land nonentity, blandness and selfishness. Every two years or so, the village becomes a kind of suburban Oberammergau, staging an epic, elaborate musical play in which most of the 636 people in the village play some part.

I went along two years ago, expecting to be underwhelmed, and was astonished by the extravagance and professionalism of the show. I went again this year to seeLes Secrets de la Licorne (The Secrets of the Unicorn).

It has an original script, written, as usual, by the 51-year-old mayor, Christian Schoettl. It has several original songs which would not disgrace a West End musical. It has a burning village. It has 62 actors, aged between 79 and 10 months, all but one of whom (guess which) speaks or sings. It has a mysterious, green fog from which a live unicorn emerges, to die on stage and then be resurrected. It has three horses, two cows, a baby llama, a municipal camel called Victor and two donkeys descended from animals which used to belong to Ingrid Bergman.

Most of the animals belong to the village. They have been collected by the mayor over the years to add interest to the show. In between biannual performances, they form a petting zoo and are loaned out to villagers to mow their lawns.

The hero of the story is, as usual, the village of Janvry itself, in medieval times. With the help of its magic unicorn, the village remains a sanctuary of modest, community values, resisting the casual ignorance and violence of the world outside.

Any British amateur dramatic epic would be played mostly for laughs. There are plenty of laughs in the Janvry show, usually at the expense of neighbouring villages. There is also, however, a subtle message about identity and rejection of outsiders and the preservation of values. A troupe of Arabs (accompanied by the camel, Victor) is told to camp elsewhere. In revenge, they reveal the secret of the unicorn to a pair of hunters who shoot the animal for its horn (presumably not realising that it is made of wobbly plastic).

The theme is applicable more widely to a France anxious to maintain its identity in a global sea of sameness. Putting up crude barriers, and rejecting outsiders, is not necessarily the way to preserve what you hold most dear.

M. Schoettl, 51, is also a very effective politician. He recently won a campaign to have a bus stop erected on the nearby A10 motorway to allow local commuters to leave their cars at home. This is the first motorway bus stop in Europe.

"There is an Asterix side to what we are doing, struggling to preserve our identity, except that Asterix is always fighting and hurting people," he says. "We want to entertain people, to amuse people, to persuade people that, look, it doesn't all have to be anonymous housing estates and shopping malls. There can be islands of beauty and community." On the night that I went to the show with my wife and daughters, there was a sell-out audience of 500 people. At exactly the same time, the France football team was playing a crucial match in Germany.

Score: Janvry 1 World Cup 0.

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