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How can we explain the demographic revival in the French countryside over the past 20 years? This migration was initially confined to the urban periphery, but has now reached rural margins. Three out of four rural cantons showed positive net migration during the 1990s. While some interpret it as a sign of a “rural renaissance” that reverses decades of desertification – “the end of farmers” and “the end of native soils” – the socio-spatial dynamics are much more complex, and rather less idyllic.
Resettling rural areas is not the monopoly of the middle and upper classes, or young executives who look to the countryside for a more pleasant way of life and acquire a detached house for their families. An urban exodus has helped change the sociology of the countryside; 60 per cent of country-dwellers are now workers or employees. In the past, the rural exodus, accelerated by the industrial revolution, created the urban proletariat by driving smallholders and artisans out of the countryside. Today the urban proletariat – particularly the poorest households – have been relegated from towns because of the rise in house prices. In France, the poverty threshold is set at 50 per cent or 60 per cent of the median standard of living. In 2007, this was $948 a month for a single person at 50 per cent of the median standard of living, and $1,137 a month at 60 per cent; between 4.2 and 8 million people.
The institutionalization of France’s national urban policy (politique de la ville) in the 1970s masked this change by addressing all social issues as urban issues. Now, in 90 out of France’s 95 départements, relative poverty is higher in the countryside than in towns. While this is linked to a crisis in agriculture, it is also the result of the arrival of poor neo-rurals.
It takes 45 minutes to drive from Montpellier to Ganges, a small town of 4,000 just within the Hérault département. The road first passes between Euromédecine and Agropolis, the hi-tech parks that symbolise the dynamism of Montpellier, the “town that makes its dreams come true”. Then it goes straight across the wine-growing plains of the Coteaux du Languedoc and then more sinuously around the foothills of the Cévennes. The district of Ganges, far from Montpellier’s jobs and services, nevertheless attracts new inhabitants: almost a thousand have settled here since 1992.
Bernard and Christine (not their real names), young retirees originally from the outskirts of Montpellier, arrived in 2008. He used to work for Nicollin, the urban cleaning company. She used to clean in secondary schools. Their income dropped abruptly in retirement. Heavily in debt, they could no longer cope with their rising expenditures. The rest, they said, “was coincidence: a house in the country, not expensive, bearable local taxes, a maximum of 50 kilometers from Montpellier”. The necessity to move became a virtue.
“This is a miniature Colorado, paradise on earth, with the river below. In summer, you don’t worry about anything,” Sylvie said. She arrived from Paris 10 years ago after losing her job. Like other short-term visitors, she was seduced by Ganges’ charms on a summer holiday. The mountains around the town are majestic. The riverbanks of the Hérault are pleasant for a swim. The town square is delightful, its cafés shaded by plane trees. The dream of a becalmed life in the country enchants city-dwellers. And even for those with little money, modest rents make the dream possible. Some chose to settle in Ganges when they retired, reached the end of a fixed-term contract or were made unemployed.
In the 1970s, as part of a political environmentalism, some of the bourgeoisie began to criticise urban life as inauthentic, compared with country life. Capitalism followed suit, relying on real estate promoters and local MPs wanting to make their constituencies more attractive. The commercial promotion of the geographical environment, especially near the Mediterranean, and of farm culture in the big cities (markets selling crafts and other authentic products) have helped to create a fiction that allows poor neo-rurals to ignore their socio-spatial relegation.
But when summer is over “you quickly realize your misfortune,” Sylvie said. In the autumn, Cévenol rainstorms hammer the Mediterranean foothills of the Massif Central and “winter is pretty long”. A social worker said: “Every year there’s a spike of activity in September. People who moved into campsites thinking they could live there year round suddenly discover the bad weather and the rigours of winter.”
The first frosts also surprise new tenants of the town’s apartments. In Ganges, as in most of the French countryside, over half of all accommodation was built before 1949. Much is decrepit, with holes in the roofs, badly insulated windows, and archaic electric circuits. “Every month I’ve got to pay rent for an apartment that looks like a squat,” Sylvie said. In winter, damp oozes from the walls, and high ceilings make apartments difficult to heat. When the fuel tank is empty and electricity bills can no longer be paid, domestic space is reorganised around the oil heater.
Few job opportunities
In the months after their move to Ganges, new arrivals see their income dwindle. Salaries are replaced with small pensions, unemployment benefits fall off and many start to receive income support (Revenu de Solidarité Active, RSA). The trap closes. Attracted by cheap accommodation, they have removed themselves from employment hubs and struggle to find work. Capitalism accentuates the concentration and diversification of employment in towns, but in the countryside jobs are rare, monotonous and dispersed.
At the end of sick leave, Anne stopped working and decided to move to Montpellier with her daughter, but “the cost of accommodation made [them] turn back. First 15, then 20 kilometers… till [they] landed in Ganges.” Far from the job opportunities of the regional capital, Anne spent several years on unemployment benefit, in odd jobs and part-time work. “I never thought I’d find myself stuck like that, without work.” Today, she has a part-time fixed-term contract at the local school, for $1,014 per month. She is heavily in debt and has to use a food bank and other charities. Her only hope is to get closer to a big city to find work that will allow her to live decently.
In Ganges, 15 per cent of the working-age population are unemployed, compared to 13.7 per cent in Hérault département and 10 per cent in France overall. A third of salaried employees have part-time contracts. The local textile industry, once flourishing, was destroyed by synthetic fibres after the second world war, then by competition from Asia. In their golden age, the mills in Ganges sourced their silk from the magnaneries (silkworm nurseries) of the Cévennes and produced luxury stockings for the world. Today, 80 per cent of salaried employees depend on summer residents and tourism.
There is an extensive spread of settlements further and further away from towns; there is an intense concentration of jobs in urban centres. Because of this clash between settlement and job geography, rural areas mean pauperisation for those who cannot commute daily between home and work. “When I’m offered a job 30 kilometers away, I think twice,” said Anne, “especially since travel time is not included in work time and petrol is never reimbursed. Anyway, my car’s very old, every new problem gets me into a real mess.”
For the inhabitants, badly served by public transport, local council buses cannot replace the car. The dominant classes have structured space to their own benefit by establishing speed as a value and the mastery of distance as a virtue. Since the socio-spatial organisation of work requires ever greater flexibility from employees, the demand that they be mobile is a powerful factor in their pauperisation and exclusion. As the geographer Jean-Pierre Orfeuil notes: “Different levels of mobility are not only part of the general picture of inequalities, but also an integral part of the reproduction of these inequalities”.
Moving to the country should be about being able to live on less. In reality, very few practise subsistence strategies – or resistance strategies – and use the local resources to live. Very few have vegetable plots that will allow them to grow rather than buy food. For those without capital, the countryside does not offer a way out of the vicious cycle in which they have been caught. Many continue to founder, surviving on RSA ($576.26 a month) during long periods of unemployment. This sum is for a single person without children. For a couple without children, it is $864.40.
“The increase in the numbers of people living on the poverty line has made it necessary to enlarge our teams,” said Alain Chapel, head of the county’s local social services office. The canton of Ganges has three social workers. Ten years ago, it had one. Jacques Rigaud, the district’s mayor, said: “The district food bank already feeds 300 people. But with destitution increasing, we have less and less food to give to each of them.”
“Five years ago, we saw huge numbers of investors arrive to buy decrepit houses to rent to families in difficulties,” he said. They did not restore old buildings; they now profit from the high demand for cheap accommodation by renting out grim apartments. Reasonable rents attract a high concentration of the poorest to this town, people who cannot afford to live on the coast or in Montpellier, where prices are much higher.
Need for handouts
A poverty economy has slowly established itself. Besides the investors who prosper by renting out hovels, the discount brand names, always on the lookout for the perfect location, are trying to cash in. Lidl is building a supermarket on the remains of the winegrowers’ cooperative. Two other chains, Aldi and Leader Price, are looking for plots.
The poverty also explains the presence of charitable organisations: the Secours Populaire, Secours Catholique, Salvation Army and Restos du Cœur, as well as the food bank. Nathalie Thaullèle, local head of the Secours Populaire, said they receive 350 people year round, and over 550 in winter: poor workers, pensioners, the homeless, young adults who have left their families. “[Many] wanted to escape poverty by leaving town, only to find it waiting for them in the countryside.” The exodus has persuaded the Secours Populaire to expand its operations in the county’s rural margins.
Life in the country is not a pastoral idyll, as the urban bourgeoisie likes to believe. Rural areas are not socially homogenous. At the county level, districts inhabited by the middle and upper classes have established real-estate strategies to keep out modest earners. In the Cazevielle district halfway between Montpellier and Ganges, the “little Switzerland of the county”, the price of land with water, gas and electricity installed has reached $88 per square meter. The land-use plan has been drawn up so as to offer only plots over 1,000 square meters, which excludes many households.
Social separatism is also at work at district level. A project for a gated community, the metropolitan archetype of spatial segregation, has just been launched in Ganges. Its promoters offer those who have money a secure life among their equals.
The opposition between town and countryside has become blurred. Yet it persists clearly in the mind of the new rurals, although reversed. The lost paradise is no longer the authentic rural life, but the vanished bright lights of the friendly city. “I have good memories of my life in town. Our tower block was a village. We chatted, everybody knew each other.” The rural villages are described as ghettoes, especially by social workers, who do not see any difference between the poverty in the housing estates on the outskirts of towns where they used to work and that in the countryside they cover today.
Some of the new rurals regret the loss of the commercialised leisure spaces and scripted conviviality of their old life. “We had our shop, our Auchan. Life was good in Montpellier.” Yet the theatrical urbanism of Montpellier’s Antigone district; the Polygone shopping centre, one of the region’s biggest; and the new Odysseum district with its multiplex, chain restaurants and superstore, all provoke alienated dreams. Montpellier is not just another metropolis. Never before had French town councils applied such an urban planning policy. Former mayor and local deputy Georges Frêche meant to create an urban utopia, a postmodern assembly of quotations from antiquity, on which the city’s Mediterranean myth is based. The capital of the Languedoc region is the matrix for a new council liberalism that organises urban space so that the economy can spread freely. This avant-garde approach is being followed by other elected representatives, whose legitimacy depends on their ability to produce a positive brand image to attract the entrepreneurs of the new “technopolitan” economy.
Every month, the Hérault département attracts a thousand new inhabitants, a net migration record. The great metropolitan machine clears the city centres for the middle classes and the poorest start their exodus towards remote rural areas, driven out of Montpellier, the “New Athens”, where only “a minority of free citizens owns and enjoys the social spaces.” In Le droit à la ville, Henri Lefebvre compares today’s metropolises to the Greek city-states of antiquity; it is this Athenian aesthetic model that Georges Frêche has chosen.
Translated by Tom Genrich.
This article appears in the August edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.