“What if our future was in the villages?”

The awakening of “forgotten” France

by Rita Müller-Hill, Cologne

La France profonde, the deep France, is what rural France far from Paris is commonly called. The book by Anthony Cortes, journalist for the weekly magazine “Marianne”, is about this France: “Le réveil de la France oubliée. Et si notre avenir était dans les villages?” (The awakening of the forgotten France. What if our future was in the villages?)1

It is well known that young people are leaving the country. Especially among those in their thirties, the number of those moving to the cities is higher than those coming to the countryside. But overall, between 1999 and 2014, the number of rural residents has increased compared to urban residents (19 % versus 11 %), at least in areas that are still within reach of a larger city (Cortes, p. 21).
  Through the yellow vests movement, we have learned a lot about how people in the countryside are doing. The farmers, the workers, the employees, the old, the young. Every year, about 370 farmers commit suicide because they don’t know what to do anymore.2
  When a woman is expecting a baby, in 79 % of cases she has to travel an hour by car to the nearest maternity ward. It has happened that the baby was born on the way there and died because the necessary help could not be provided. If not 300 but only 260 babies are born in a maternity ward within one year, it is unprofitable and thus closed. Several studies commissioned by the government calculate that 60 emergency wards should be closed because they are not “profitable”. There are departments where in three quarters of the area the inhabitants have to live more than one hour away from medical care.
  Schools are being closed, communities are being merged, local services are being discontinued. When the post office closes, it is the absolute symbol that the state is withdrawing and abandoning the village (p. 32). There is no more bakery, no more grocery shop, no more work. The villages are depopulating.
  Now a journalist has set out and travelled this France for two years. The result is a meticulous account of what he experienced and saw in this “forgotten France”. “Le réveil de la France oubliée” (The Awakening of Forgotten France) is a cautiously optimistic book. It is rather quiet in tone, the way one deals with tender plants. Anthony Cortes feels his way around the various initiatives in different parts of France. He has a good sense and a big heart for the people and their situation, because he himself comes from the countryside, from a small village near Perpignan, Occitanie region.
  In his analysis of the causes of the state of rural France, Cortes draws on the latest work by Christophe Guilluy, Emmanuel Todd and Jérome Fourquet3: the diagnosis that globalisation has left its mark here is certain. The devastating and destructive activity of the French state, which has been killing the country with its laws and decrees, in particular since the last three presidencies, and in the implementation of EU directives, and which is responsible for the conditions described above, is also clearly illustrated. Cortes also examines the individual established parties and their contribution to this development: People no longer feel represented.
  Some pages of the book are dedicated to historical experiences of peasant initiatives. However, here too it is confirmed how political decisions hinder or even destroy these self-help efforts. In 1962, the EEC’s Common Agricultural Policy introduced “productivism” (mass production agriculture): to compete on European markets, French farmers had to produce more and more. Mechanisation and monoculture take hold against the better knowledge of the farmers. The small farmers are dying. The state and the EU react or continue to react with more and more free trade and the opening of markets.
  This brings us to today’s situation.

The description of the emerging different reality

Cortes sees an important turning point in 2018. When Priscilla Ludovsky4 launched an internet appeal in May, “For a lower petrol price”, signed by more than a million people, it was a beacon. Perhaps some of you remember the call for the RIC, the Referendum d'initiative citoyenne (citizens’ initiative referendum), which was discussed for a long time until the movement of the yellow vests was fought with unspeakable police violence and drowned in the “Grand débat national” launched by President Macron.5
  However, according to Cortes, the yellow vests movement has left a legacy: “an immense thirst for democracy. For months, a people rose up, educated themselves, politicised themselves and […] drew the contours of another, just, protective system […]. With blameless deputies who can also be recalled in an emergency […] and a citizen who decides”. (p. 47) Cortes writes that these ideas have not found expression at the national level, but that they have led and are leading to concrete results at the local, rural level. He describes the example of the commune of Commercy (Meuse), where 75 delegations of yellow vests met in January 2019 to discuss “what the world of tomorrow should look like”. There was much discussion, but without concrete results.
  A year later, in January 2020, this time only residents of Commercy met. They call their meeting “commune des communes” (literally: community of communities) and develop a project: “penser un contre-pouvoir communal” (thinking about a communal counter-power) (p. 48). The yellow vests call for “constituting nonpartisan citizens’ assemblies and introducing direct democracy on the basis of the commune, and in the citizens’ assemblies giving the inhabitants the decisive power, introducing the local referendum […]”.
  Cortes still sees this declaration, which has appealed to many people, as a kind of utopian flight of fancy, in order to then report on concrete examples that had certainly emerged even before the yellow vest movement. For example, in 2014 in the village of Saillans in the Drôme. There, a large shopping centre was to be built without consulting the population. As the municipal elections were just around the corner, a list was formed “No programme, no candidates, the list, that’s us.” 57 % of the votes are gained. The mayor is appointed and the mayor’s office becomes the community centre, open to all citizens of the commune. A citizens’ committee meets twice a month, discussion groups are formed, a wind of accountability blows through the commune. Unfortunately, this experiment does not continue. It fails because of the newly arrived residents from the city, who have different interests than the long-established residents. Two hostile factions form, the new and the old residents. The mayoralty goes to the townspeople in 2020 with 18 more votes.
  But: 730 other municipalities have shown interest in this experiment, and there have already been 300 citizens’ lists in the 2020 municipal elections (pp. 51/52). Cortes comes back again and again to the problem of the “newcomers” in the villages.
  Even before 2018, people “went independent” in 1970 in the village of Trémargat in Brittany with its 180 inhabitants. Reportedly, 600 hectares of the commune’s land were uncultivable. Today they are cultivated by 16 farmers. In 1970, a group of farmers settled here because of the cheap land. The old-timers were sceptical, but the newcomers were not deterred. Today, the project continues and the municipality joins in, providing land and housing cheaply for newcomers. A baker has come to the village, a greengrocer’s shop, supported by a citizens’ initiative from Saint-Brieuc, whose members want to eat fresh vegetables and bread from the region.
  In Saâles, in Alsace, the village of about 800 inhabitants is being revitalised in 1995 on the initiative of the mayor. Fruit growing and meadows are added to pure forestry, dairy farming, cheese, an organic bakery, a library with internet access and a café, because being together and talking to each other is important. Doctor, nurse, physiotherapist. The biggest difficulties for him were the bureaucracy, says the mayor, who is leaving office after 20 successful years.
  Cortes lists many more initiatives of various kinds. They all live from the courage and determination of the citizens and their mayor to give life back to their village. Here a school is founded, a private one, because the state is not involved. There, a meeting place is started so that people can talk to each other again. A doctor is found. Or “rolling” medical care is organised. All are aware of the importance of their work: “Running a shop is not just about collecting a few bank notes. You bring a whole valley to life”. (p. 80)

The school

In Cahus, in the Lot, with a population of 204, the school is to be closed in 2018. According to the school board, maintaining a school for 46 pupils is a foolish thing to do, because it needs the posts for the larger towns. For the children, this would have meant a 45-minute commute to school. To the mayor, this sounded like the decided death of the village. Without school, families will not stay in the village. With some villagers, they decide to occupy the school, the press reports about them. They hold out. The school remains. The children who go from this village school to the Collège (the intermediate level of secondary school) have a good level because they can learn in smaller groups and under good conditions.
  In another village, in Quérigut, in the Ariège, the primary school teacher went on maternity leave. There was no substitute. Without the local school, the three-to-ten year old pupils would have been on the bus for two hours a day. That’s when two mothers took the initiative and, with the support of the school authorities, saved the school by taking over the lessons. In other places, schools were founded “hors contrat” (i. e., public schools). First, a cooperative had to be founded to raise money to realise the project.

Medical care

In addition to schools, medical care is considered another most important element of community’s life. Cortes quotes (p. 86) a mayor of the “Association of French Mayors of Rural Communities”: “For years, our fellow citizens have had no medical care. All available means must be used to change this state of affairs as soon as possible”. Telemedicine, which is promoted by the state, is not enough to meet people’s needs, and the health centres, also initiated by the state, are proving far too expensive for the individual communities, because they have to attract doctors with all kinds of financially favourable offers, as they prefer to practise in the cities. Thus, in some areas, they have come up with the bus, which drives around the communities once a week to ensure a minimum of medical care. This model finds its limits in a government regulation that prohibits outpatient medicine. Thus, manning the bus remains limited to nurses and similar paramedical professions. Sometimes exceptions are made, “in the interest of public health” (p. 87), when the département allows one, as in Givors on the Rhône. Ultimately, however, the question remains for the mayors: how can young doctors be persuaded to establish themselves in the countryside?
  In October 2018, “81 % of French people consider life in the countryside to be the ideal life, according to an opinion poll by IFOP6 (p. 133). Cities would have to become more human again and the countryside more vital. The villages should be revitalised. The priority given to cities should be called into question.
  Cortes also discusses this question; he raises the difficulties in the encounter between “city dwellers” and rural dwellers, reports on successful experiments, but also on internet platforms that want to implant something from above and nothing comes of it. In the countryside they say: “With us, you don’t serve yourself, you serve”. (p. 132) As a city dweller, one has become more accustomed to the consumer side, the much-invoked individualism, personal freedom leads to loneliness. In the countryside, people live together and take care of each other.
  The solutions in Anthony Cortes’ book are village-based. They show what is possible at the local level, but also question the ever-increasing expansion and concentration of the big cities. These are approaches that should be thought about further. First and foremost, the importance of personal initiative in connection with direct democracy at the local level instead of centralised government and a supply from local production instead of mass production and globalised dependence. Many problems today, with their origins in flawed decisions, thought by elites for the big cities, show up in the village, in the smallest unit of the civic community.
  If you want to read an encouraging book with many successful examples of personal initiatives, without falling into nostalgia, but also want to learn about the origins of the problems and realistic thoughts on how to overcome them, perhaps also looking for suggestions for your own initiatives, you should definitely read Anthony Cortes’ book.  •

1 All book quotations translated by the author.
2 According to a Senate Commission report, “Suicides en agriculture: mieux prévenir, identifier et accompagner les situations de détresse”, published on 17 March 2021, quoted from: Front Populaire, 23 March 2021.
3 Guilluy, Christophe. La France périphérique. Flammarion, 2014; es. Le temps des gens ordinaires. Flammarion, 2020; Todd, Emmanuel. La lutte des classes au XXIe siècle. Editions du Seuil, 2020; Fourquet, Jérôme. L'Archipel francais. Edition du Seuil, 2019
4 P. Ludovsky was one of the most active yellow vests.
5 “‘Le grand débat national’ was a public debate in France launched on 15 January 2019 by the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, which practically diluted the real concerns of the people on hundreds of issues”. Guilluy, Christophe. Le temps des gens ordinaires. 2020, p. 49
6 Institut français d’opinion publique, oldest French polling institute.

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