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Not only the urban poor and displaced head for the French countryside. Some very determined and creative families have gone back to the land for a better way of life.
It is noon on the first day of the French summer holidays in the Lozère. Dozens of locals have come with their children to a smallholding by the banks of the Gardon for a yearly gathering of Nature & Progrès, the organic certification body and environmental lobby group.
“Locals” here means neo-rurals. There is a clear, though not necessarily pejorative, distinction in the Cévennes mountains between Cévenols born and bred and néos (whether newly arrived or relatively long established). The néos have diverse social backgrounds, but many shared principles, including organic agriculture.
The néos have gathered to chat, eat and drink at long tables in the shade of a large walnut tree. An acoustic band constantly fluctuating in size plays traditional chansons. The food is pay-what-you-like and vegetarian.
Around the edge of the recently mown field are stalls with signs announcing “build your own wind turbine” and “PostIndustry presents… the poly-tool”. There are demonstrations of plant-based wastewater purification systems, wool carding, and a botanical walk to identify wild food.
Among the ingenious homemade inventions to save time, labour and fossil fuels, the pedal bike and washing machine feature a lot. Cédric and Glenn’s “poly-tool” is a car seat welded on to a metal sheet in front of an old bike; its weighted back wheel turns a belt that drives anything you fancy. Today, it is grinding his dried chestnuts, at the anecdotal rate of one saucepan a minute.
Next to him, Manu showcases his pedal-powered washing machine, built following internet instructions. A bike with many gears turns the drum. Wash cycle: 15 minutes. Rinse: five minutes. Spin: five minutes. Every load of laundry is a principled exercise against France’s nuclear policy and the cost of electricity. Manu and his family are completely off the electric grid: they have solar hot water, photovoltaic cells and cook on either gas or a solar cooker. “We organise our life to live better and cheaper,” he says, “by respecting the environment as much as possible… through scrap recycling, mutual help, swapping, buying local… and degrowth in general.”
Degrowth (décroissance) is a loose international movement against consumerism and the idea that economic growth is not only good for us, but the only means by which we can survive. Degrowth is environmentalist and advocates generalised downscaling, at least in developed nations. “But we don’t live in a cave,” says Manu, a qualified teacher, self-taught builder, school bus driver and elected representative in his village (only about a quarter of whose inhabitants were born there). “We have a computer, we’re not Luddites.” He and his partner wanted out of the “dirty smelly city” which they found “aggressive, especially towards the fringe elements of society that we represented, and the poor in general.” They wanted something better, for themselves and their children.
Néos in the Cévennes are artisans, artists, social workers, translators, special needs carers, activists, and smallholders. None of them have been “forced” to move here. Most thought hard before taking the plunge into what is, by any standards, deepest countryside: average population density in Lozère is 15 inhabitants per square kilometer, compared to 100 nationwide. They come mostly from within France and, in a few cases, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the UK. Many prepared in advance, training as farmer, brewer or knife maker; others have learned on the job, cheese maker or bread baker. Almost all come from towns. Some were urban professionals. Several have PhDs. Others have a traveller or squatter background. A few have returned to the area – or property – their grandparents once lived in.
This influx, which began in earnest in the 1980s, shows no sign of diminishing. It follows a dramatic rural exodus from the region that continued for well over a century. Its primary causes were crises in chestnut and silkworm farming, the two world wars, and better job opportunities in mining and viticulture further south. The 1968 national census showed that levels in the Cévennes had dropped to 30 per cent of the 1850 population. Now this trend is being reversed.
The Cévennes mountains have a unique beauty. But they are marginal farmland, with terraced slopes, narrow riverside meadows and gradients best suited to grazing. Néo smallholders cultivate organically, whether for sale or their own table. They transform much of their own produce into jams and chutneys, pélardon goat’s cheese, pâtés, vinegar, juice, dried herbs, chestnut flour, and honey. Some own a few sheep for “mowing”, manure and meat.
This might sound romantic, but life in the Cévennes is not easy. The traditional dry-stone houses are draughty and require vast amounts of firewood to heat. In summer, gardens and fields are sun-baked and parched, and water for irrigation can be hard to come by. At other times, almost tropical rainstorms smash crops and wash soil down the steep hillsides into the streams. Wild boars knock down terracing walls. Rodents and ants are ever-present around (and in) human habitations. In winter the pipes freeze.
The newcomers are not deterred. But not everyone rejoices at their arrival. There are culture clashes, a perception that these migrants are dilettantes, hippies, stoners. Tensions are escalating. Carine, who came to study at the distinguished agricultural institute in Florac, was astonished to hear local farmers call it a “pot-smokers’ college”. Perhaps her business plan for farming the healthfood algae spirulina sounded too exotic. Yet Jean-Max André, mayor of the village of Gabriac for over 20 years, suggests that political will is all that is needed. If an elected representative “with a bit of grit and experience” keeps the lines of communication open, he says, conflicts can be resolved or at least eased.
The hexagon is for us all
But Lozère is a poor département: the average annual household income is a quarter less than the national average, at just over $14,000. Some newcomers rely on income support, unemployment benefit and/or free healthcare, and enjoy tax advantages for large families and installing renewable energy materials.
What makes relying on state aid seem so offensive to the locals? Perhaps it is the Protestant work ethic, the stoic independence of mountain people, generations of economic marginalisation, or a pride in accepting nothing from the French state (which waged a vicious religious war on the Protestant Cévennes, especially in the 18th century). Nevertheless, as Carine points out, when finances are in a mess, old and new inhabitants alike survive on benefits.
Carine, inspired by mayor André’s success, stood in the municipal elections in her own village, and lost. She and her team were denigrated, she claims, because they were “not even Cévenols”. This unanswerable argument turns newly arrived French nationals into internal foreigners – implicitly, forever. Carine’s husband Simon, a carpenter, scoffs: “I was born in this country. The ‘hexagon’ [mainland France] is for all of us.”
Manu has never encountered any opposition to his family, or the northern French friends with whom he bought an old mas (extended farm) to set up as goat and sheep farmers and cheese makers, all archetypical Cévenol activities. He thinks they were accepted because they worked hard from the beginning on a project that was familiar to locals, and because their hamlet already had a history of “mixed marriages” (between natives and people from away). But mostly because their daughter was born there, at home, “the first birth in the district for 54 years – everyone was overjoyed”.
His friend, composer-musician Cyril, agrees that having young kids helps néos to integrate. In under-populated areas, a handful of children can make the difference between a thriving school and one threatened with closure; the pupils of tomorrow are a (desperately needed) support for local facilities and services. Néos are rejuvenating the Cévennes. In Saint-Privat-de-Vallongue, their children make up more than half of the 25 pupils aged three to 11 that attend the nursery and primary school. Their parents are highly active in the PTA and on the board of governors. School is a natural forum for new and native Cévenols to meet and communicate. Mayor André calls it “the great unifier”.
Carine is now one of a minority of néos who has an office job: she works for the National Park, a state-owned company. As her colleague Inès points out, the Cévennes are sometimes known, economically and demographically, as “the last desert before the Sahara”. If you want or need something, you make or organize it – a local market, cultural events, firewood, a new roof. Life here is a daily challenge for all. But what anthropologist Jean-Didier Urbain calls the attraction of being “master of one’s own time and space” also makes it very rewarding.
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.