Village festivals are increasingly important in rural France. They bring tourists and money, but they also restore pride to small towns which have lost so much elseby Tim King / July 28, 2007 / Leave a comment
In summer, France profonde changes. From a dwindling winter population of 60, my village, lost in the hills, swells to many times that number as families trek down from the cities to their résidence secondaire—the house where dad or grandad grew up, then left at 18, desperate for work. The shopkeepers in small rural towns depend on these two months as the wage-earning natives return and feed their memories with local gastronomic delicacies. Oh the joys of country living! The children amuse themselves with their cousins, trawling the river or popping beetles with a magnifying glass, but what about the jeunes? For years the elders in each village organised a fête, tailor-made, so they thought, to what the world-weary jeune was supposed to like. So during four successive nights, a weird assortment of fifth- rate rock groups would perform increasingly unrecognisable cover versions of Anglo-Saxon songs of the 1970s to a dozen pissed paysans propping up the trestle-table bar—with not a jeune in sight.
But thankfully, that’s all changing. Now, throughout rural France, there are festivals in the true, celebratory sense. Les Vieilles Charrues de Carhaix in central Brittany is emblematic of the new and hugely successful rural festival. In 1992, a group of jeunes from Brest, fed up that large towns always monopolised major events, organised a four-day party near Carhaix, in Bretagne profonde: country games, barbecues and a bit of live music. 500 turned up that first year and had a good time. Now some of the best European and American bands come to this town of 8,000 inhabitants, while 200,000 people come to listen. Les Vieilles Charrues has become a major international rock festival, hosting more than 80 bands over four days, but it’s still put together by the same group of friends. This year Peter Gabriel, Charles Aznavour, Bryan Ferry and Sinéad O’Connor top a bill so eccentric it could never have been dreamed up by a slick city promoter. And even more remarkable than the quality of the music is the way the festival is run: 6,000 volunteers work day and night to make it happen in a clean, friendly way; for as well as the music, the emphasis, as one would expect, is on the environment—the festival is run by locals for the benefit of their neighbours, not to alienate them all.
Further south, lost in the sparsely populated Massif Central, Aurillac is two…