We’ve been over in France for a couple of weeks now, enjoying a gallic interlude, catching up with our good French neighbours, and trying to work out which of our local restaurants has survived the fairly bitter economic downturn here. We’re a bit worried about La Maison des Amis de la Foret, next door to us, because their doors haven’t opened since Sunday. Do hope they’ve not fallen victim to the wretched economy.
In fact there are only two topics of conversation over here at the moment – the weather and the economy. And neither is cheerful. As the UK economy shudders into first gear and begins the steep climb out of recession, it’s hard to see the evidence all around us of a French economy that has a steeper hill to climb, and has yet to start moving. You can’t live half your life, as we do, in rural France without caring deeply about the depressed state of things.
One tell-tale sign of woe has been the rash of A Vendre signs that has sprouted alongside every road. It’s nothing new, of course, to see houses for sale here – unlike in the UK, they have many more houses than people to occupy them and it’s not unusual for property to sit dolefully on the market for years. But the new rash of A Vendre signs are planted in practically every little plot of unoccupied land in every village. It looks as though anyone in rural France who owns “un petit coin” of land is trying to flog it – presumably to raise a little capital in order to ride them over the bad times. Who’s going to buy all these plots, or build on them, Lord knows. There are already more houses that are needed, and just at a time when rural France is plunging into what feels like a terminal decline.
We note, for example, that the small dairy farm down the road no longer has cattle on it, and the outbuildings have lost most of their roof tiles. The amiable farmer still lives there, but evidently with no one to take over what must always, with a herd of a dozen cows, have been a marginal business. And so, quietly, a way of life is coming to an end. Small farms are the lifeblood of rural France, and when they go, with them will go centuries of self-sufficient, modest, frugal livelihood.
We have grown used, over the years we’ve lived in our rural South Yorkshire village, to seeing its character eroded. There is still a farm working in the village – but only just. The ancient farm buildings are long gone – all turned into barn-conversions – and the handful of agricultural labourers have given way to middle class commuters. “That’s progress” is the mantra to which one impotently resorts. And it is, of course.
But the character of English villages has not for centuries been as profoundly simple and agricultural as that of France. Sad, if perhaps indulgently sentimental of me, to see all that coming to an end. But it rather looks as though that is what has begun to happen.
A way of life a vendre.