A regular visitor to France, Rhys David finds much to admire and possibly lessons to learn in the efforts rural areas are making to revive
Peter Mayle should probably take some of the blame. Charmed by his 1989 book A Year in Provence, a generation of comfortably-off Britons set out to find their dream rural retreat in La France Profonde. The French appeared not to mind. The post-war drift from the land, as mechanization replaced the large peasant labour force of old, had left countless properties in town, village and countryside vacant and, by the native population at least, unloved. Doing up old buildings was a British passion – the French thought it more sensible, if they were not moving to the big cities to buy a modern detached property on the edge of town and to abandon the thick stone-walled cottages without modern plumbing and damp courses – and sometimes gas and electricity, too. They knew what life in winter in such homes was like.
Twenty years later the pendulum seems to have swung. This year evidence suggests there are now even more À Vendre signs than for some time but this time many of the sellers are British people who have enjoyed their visits over the past decade or so but are now older and find their children are less enthusiastic about maintaining a distant property on which two sets of French taxes have to be paid. These come on top of routine maintenance that sometimes has to be negotiated from a distance or through the agency of friends. Holiday options are different, too. The French idyll now has to compete with, among others, the cruise – 10 destinations in 14 days perhaps – and with more exotic locations such as Cuba or the Maldives, or a visit to family in Australia or New Zealand.
Yet, the picture the British visitor conjures up from travelling through eerily quiet, shuttered town and village centres might not be the right one. Though the stone cottage or farmhouse may have to wait for another change in holiday fashion or a new wave of outside investors, there is an unseen vitality in many of France’s communes and a strong desire among those who have stayed to secure a future. In Mouliherne a small town I have known (as a visitor not an owner!) over the past 16 years, much has changed, on the surface at any rate. The restaurant there in 2000 has gone, La Poste has moved from its Napoleonic villa style building, complete with a row of serious-looking clerks behind metal grilles, to a modest bureau run on an agency basis next to the Mairie, the fancy goods shop has closed, and the church now only has services once a month. School buses apart, there is virtually no public transport.
With a population of between 900 and 1,000 – less than half the figure immediately before World War One, the town centre now only supports one boulangerie, the other having closed long ago but there is a reasonably well-stocked village shop trading under the Viveco brand (a French Spar equivalent) and a long-standing bar, intermittently open and patronized entirely by locals. There is, too, a high quality butcher and charcutier selling local meats, though he only opens in the mornings, trading during afternoons at one or other of the local village markets.
It is what happens beneath the surface, where the visitor rarely penetrates, that is most interesting, and which perhaps offers some insights that could be valuable to our own policy-makers keen to find solutions to rural problems in Wales and elsewhere. In super-efficient but paradoxically low productivity Britain there would be gasps of horror at the thought that Mouliherne operates at the fifth tier of local government – a commune in the canton of Longue, in the arrondissement of Saumur, in the Department of Maine et Loire, in the Region of Pays de Loire. Yet, M. le Mayor Rene Louvet and his community council have considerable powers and responsibilities and a budget that would make bigger British community councils weep with envy.
There are eight commune employees and they look after the streets and sanitation, the green spaces and public buildings, the school canteen and school support services, the post office and local admin at the Mairie. (How strange that Veolia, as the former French water company Compagnie Generale des Eaux is now known, carries out local government services such as rubbish collection even for big cities in Britain while in France it is a local matter.) A few minor services are being added, too, following a reform and regrouping of some local government in the area. The commune has also recently taken over responsibility for a town website started by a local IT club and developed it into an interactive facility for communicating information on local developments and enabling residents to make their views known.
This fits with the priority identified by the mayor and his council of sustaining a viable village, and the choices made at the Mairie meetings reflect this. When officials in faraway Nantes decided in 2014 to cease to operate the previously state-licensed Tabac in Mouliherne, the commune decided its bar and restaurant were too important a local amenity to allow to disappear. The building was bought and refurbished by the commune using local and regional funds at a cost of nearly €150,000 and a local entrepreneur and chef found to run the new Sur Votre Route, the name an acknowledgment of the town’s role as a crossroads on the old Gallo-Roman roads linking Tours and Angers and Le Mans and Poitiers. In its first six months it served 4,000 meals and has been judged a success.
The next project to be funded, again drawing on local and regional resources is a Salle de Sport. The local Community of Communes is making available €4m over five years on facilities in a number of small towns locally and when completed in late 2016 Mouliherne’s new hall will offer indoor tennis, badminton, volleyball, basketball, football and handball. The commune already supports an extensive open-air facility, the La Louisière Plan d’Eau, one of the many bodies of water found on the outskirts of small French towns for aquatic-based activities, and a Salle des Loisirs next to the Mairie for indoor events and official gatherings.
Mouliherne has also instituted a new farmers’ market, currently held once a month with the aim of supporting local producers and ensuring that money earned in the area is re-circulated there, too. The district’s main industry is forestry but it also has mixed farms and a large enough acreage of apple orchards on its outskirts to justify the holding annually in October of a big regional Foire des Pommes.
Yet, it is not just the initiatives directed by the commune that are contributing to the re-invigoration that seems to be taking place. There is a volunteer-organised after school club, parent teacher association, old people’s club, two types of boule, yoga, IT, a fishing club, a theatre group, seniors football and horticultural, floral, canine, and walking groups. The efforts seem to be working, too. Over the last eleven years there have been 45 marriages, 100 births – 15 more than the number of deaths so a small increase in population may be occurring if incomers are also balancing departees. The annual birth rate means a small primary school with a modest 70 pupils is being sustained. Though there are other similarly small centres nearby and a bigger centre at Baugé, ten miles distant, consolidation of classes elsewhere has not taken place.
Attracting more tourists appears not to be a priority. It has a fine Mairie, a 13th century church with a twisted spire typical of the Baugé region and outside a Lanterne des Morts built on an old ossuary, a prayer place and a beacon for travellers high above the town. It also boasts a preserved communal lavoir where clothes washing in the town’s River Riverolle took place. Nevertheless, Mouliherne’s attractions merit only a mention and not even a star in Michelin. Its charm is in part its ordinariness and with second home owners retreating It seems to have set its hopes on renewed growth from within.
Whether all its activity amounts to more or less than is achieved in a similarly-sized small town in say Powys or Cumbria would require a full scale academic study comparing and contrasting. The differences between Britain and France in culture, history and organization, particularly the role of the state and local government are enormous. Nevertheless, to the outsider it does look as though rural France is giving survival a good shot. When we leave the European Union it would be good to think we do not cease to look outside our borders for examples of just the sort of good practice that could bring improvements within our own communities as well.