Pierre spent the summers of his childhood gazing over the gentle hills, covered with his family’s vines. His father was one of the few grape-growers in the village to have a winemaking cave (cellar). Pierre dreamed of the day when he would look after the vines himself. But his father, a banker, had other ideas. Pierre fought hard, but his father fought harder. Biding his time, Pierre took a job in a bank. Finally, stubborn to the end, his father died and, four years ago, Pierre became the vigneron he’d always wanted to be.
Pierre is a good friend; his wife Marie-Pierre was my wife’s best friend at school. We almost bought a house in the same peaceful village but the planned A75 motorway only a kilometre away put me off. “It’s a godsend,” said Marie-Pierre. “The only exit between two big towns is on our doorstep: the first cave those thirsty tourists see will be ours.” Motorways for me spell trouble, but Pierre and Marie-Pierre replanted and invested their savings in better equipment. The only hiccup, until now, has been that French wine is getting harder to sell. The bombshell came from elsewhere.
The Languedoc has been tagged the California of Europe; the golden state where all those Dutch, German and British baby-boomers yearn to retire, and where many northern French people want to spend their working lives. Without the artificial chi-chi of Provence – its overpriced houses and terrible climate – the Languedoc is the fastest growing region in France. It absorbs 45,000 new arrivals a year. They have to be housed somewhere. Pierre’s village (population 706), bordering the now active motorway, is in a prime position.
First came the developers, cash in hand. Pierre sent them away. Next came his neighbours, wanting to sell their land. In that gimlet-eyed way of paysans, they told Pierre that his land blocks their access. Heavy machinery needs to come through, drains have to be laid, roads built. On his land. He’d do well to change his mind.
The mayor, an astute paysan in his seventies, is on Pierre’s side. He doesn’t want his village submerged by outsiders, but how can he refuse his electorate? The mayor refuses every application for planning permission, but four estate agents have acquired a dozen acres each by secret negotiation. Contracts have been signed, dependent on him granting building permission. Him or a new mayor.
Until now, this only happened to others – the tourist boom on the coast 30 years ago. Those once trendy seaside flats are unsellable because the quality of the building is so bad. A hundred miles of coastline is blighted by greed.
Here, land as a commodity is a new concept. The villagers don’t really understand that once they sell their land, it’s no longer theirs. The family I bought from come back every year to pick “their” fruit. The vignerons are convinced that the tide of anglais, like previous occupations, will recede and they’ll get the land back. Meanwhile, they fleece them: last April an estate agent bought an old ruin in the village for ?30,000 – everyone laughed. In October he sold it to an English couple for ?85,000.
Next, adding to the mayor’s confusion, come the experts, prophesying future trends by regurgitating studies on demography, climatology, urbanology; each clutching “artists’ impressions” of the square relook?(a word new to the mayor), all paid for from the public coffer. Taxpayers’ money is available. But with it you buy a different vision: develop, but responsibly. Public good versus private greed, regulation versus the marketplace, echoing a wider debate in France. Professional advisers told a village meeting last week that fleecing the ?angers will not do; attitudes must be “tempered” – they must be made welcome. Infrastructure before houses, continued the experts: water-purifying, sewage, flood basins. Floods, an in-evitable corollary to urban spread, are an annual disaster. Over 300,000 houses have been built in flood zones; 300,000 families fooled into buying property. Not here, the experts assured the meeting. The flood basin will go on the lowest land – Pierre’s, as it happens. The new sewage plant must go where there is red crosshatching on the map. “But that’s my cave!” shouts Pierre. “Where I make my wine!” No problem, Brussels will pay – it’s the only cave not in the co-operative system. This time his neighbours avoid looking at each other.
The result of the meeting is that Pierre’s boyhood dream is in tatters: if he doesn’t sell up and leave, he’ll spend the rest of his life looking across a sewage works at an estate of 40 new houses: 80 adults, 80 cars. Powerful cars, to take their owners all the way to Montpellier every day. They will have to work in Montpellier because there’s no work closer. About 45,000 people arrive in the Languedoc every year but 25,000 leave. There’s no work in the golden state: unemployment is higher than the high average – over 26 per cent for a 25 year old and the few jobs going are mostly seasonal or part-time with wages lower than the French average. The Languedoc is one of the poorest regions in France. Who can blame those stuck producing wine nobody wants from trying to get what they can?