Rural France, unlike rural Britain, is the habitat of the poor. While more Brits buy cheap homes here, it is dying. Decentralisation is just speeding up the decayby Tim King / February 20, 2005 / Leave a comment
The British are having one of their periodic waves of house-buying in France. “Ill with speed,” in the phrase of sociologist Thomas Eriksen, they see France as a place to slow down and catch up with the real them. The great majority buy deep in the countryside—there is so much of it and old buildings here are cheap. But there are times, particularly in midwinter, when the future in France profonde looks bleak. To find a way forward, the mayor of our commune calls a meeting to pool ideas. “We’re not going to sit here and let them close the school, kill off our village like they’ve killed off all the others.” The words are strong; people are angry. Everyone talks passionately but with a note of desperation, as though they already know there is nothing they can do.
The French countryside is closing down. Not just the usual shops, cinemas and restaurants, each one representing a personal tragedy of debt and failure, but schools, local hospitals, public transport, post offices. The whole state-supported infrastructure which sustains French life as we know it is being withdrawn. It is not simply that there is not enough money. The kitty is being re-allocated—instead of Parisian civil servants deciding national school budgets, responsibility is being handed to the 22 administrative regions. You could see this as a good thing, breeding self-reliance, but that would be to misunderstand the French people’s relationship with the state. Rather than feeling oppressively dominated by it, most French people see the state as a just father figure to whom they turn when in trouble, a guarantor of equality and uniformity across the nation, ideally placed, because remote, to rise above regional factions. For decentralisation means, in the practice of local politics, that ancient feuds resurface and those like us, who live beyond the pale, get only crumbs: our school transport and canteen now hang on the shoe-string of charity—whence my neighbours’ anger. The state has broken its promise. In November, 263 elected mayors and local councillors from just one rural region resigned, symbolically emphasising their powerlessness in the face of the state’s deafness to their pleas.
We all toss ideas on the table: summer music festivals, book fairs, motocross and ATV races. I came here to avoid tourists, but everyone else at the meeting craves their business. It is not the answer, though: the season is too short.…