This is the season when everyone in public life in France, from the President downwards, offers their voeux (good wishes) to us ordinary folk. This normally consists of a speech telling you what they did the previous year; what they are going to do during the coming year; and how much more they would be able to do if only they had the money.
I might be mistaken, but I don’t think similar events exist in the UK – or at least not to the same extent. But in France, the Maire of even the tiniest commune offers his or her voeux to the assembled population. The majority of the 37,000 communes in France – around 80% – have less than 1,500 inhabitants. Yet they have a wide range of functions – certainly more than parish councils of equivalent size places in the UK.
Our Maire offered his voeux last week in the village salle des fêtes. I regret to say that we didn’t go since we are at the extremity of our commune, our village hall is 8 kilometres away and it was cold and miserable.
However, we did receive, unusually early, a copy of the Bulletin Municipal, or annual report, for 2012. In our early years here, this publication appeared around the end of June and was somewhat out of date by that time. While it’s not comprehensive, it’s nonetheless an interesting snapshot of life in a village in SW France.
Where does the money go?
Naturally, the first item in the Bulletin is the budget. You need a degree in advanced calculus to decipher the tables but if you read on things become clearer.
Our commune covers a large area and one of the largest items of expenditure is the upkeep of the road network. According to the Bulletin, this comprises 111 kilometres of metalled road. Mostly, maintenance consists of two blokes patrolling with a truck and filling the potholes unevenly with lumps of tarmac. But more extensive works are sometimes needed, compounded by recent harsher winters and damage caused by farm vehicles. Don’t get me started on our own lane, which this winter is a river of mud and pockmarked with suspension-jarring ruts.
Next up is l’état civil, i.e. births, marriages and deaths. This reflects in microcosm the demographic of la France profonde. Alas, the 37 deaths outnumber the 20 births and 12 marriages in 2012. At least 22 (nearly 60%) were in their eighties and nineties, evidence that they do live to a ripe old age around here. Rural depopulation in the 20th century hit our village like so many. In 1900, there were more than 4,000 inhabitants. This has dwindled to about 1,600 today. Lack of jobs and the cost of housing are not conducive to young people setting up home here.
Fortunately, the local commerçants (shopkeepers) bucked this trend to some extent last year. Since we moved here, several shops have closed down and some of the shopkeepers are approaching retirement. But, as reported in the Bulletin, the ironmonger’s daughter (could be the title of a novel) has taken over the business, which is good news. Our local quincaillerie is a treasure trove and it would be a sad day if it shut. Also, the lovely young couple, Margo and Steven, who ran a stall at both weekly markets and opened a small shop in the main street, have moved to bigger premises and appear to be thriving. And there are other examples of younger people who are setting up businesses here.
The council attempts to throw some light on recent modifications to the planning regulations in the Bulletin. Having read it, I was not greatly enlightened but full marks to them for effort. And there’s an interesting article about the regulations for cemeteries, which are extensive and strict. While not a jolly subject, it’s worth a post in its own right. After all, it’s one of the two things we can’t avoid – the other one being taxes. And there are plenty of those.
The Bulletin also provides information about the activities of local associations, including restoring the local patrimoine (built heritage), hunting, learning traditional folk dancing and playing ping-pong. And it’s a useful directory of local services and businesses.
The village itself has smartened up since we moved here and there are fewer dilapidated buildings. The main road ploughing through the centre doesn’t do a lot for communal cohesiveness, though. And it’s always a bit of struggle to get the local folk to take part in things, unlike some other local communes. Inevitably, the place is much livelier in the summer when the holidaymakers and second homers are around. There were only three stalls in last week’s Saturday market; in the summer there are around 15.
So, as in most places in rural France, it’s a mixed picture. But, having lived in the back of beyond for 15 years, I couldn’t go back to living in a city.
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All very impressive. We don’t have any of this, but then there are only 42 of us in our little commune. Word of mouth is all we have!
Yes, a Bulletin Municipal would probably be de trop for only 42 people. Our commune is very spread out so it serves a purpose for a lot of people.
We had our little ‘meilleur voeux’ last Saturday. I loved it! All that kiss-kiss-kissing and wishing each other ‘bonne annee,’ bonne sante’, and ‘meilleur voeux.’ We have nothing comparable in the States. Our tiny village of 150 folks had 1 death, 4 births and no marriages. The population grew by 20 people…mostly young families and of course, me! We have no businesses, but there is a ‘big project’ in the works thru the ‘communuate de Figeac.’ No one is sure just what it is, even Madame the Mayor was perplexed, but it will happen in the ‘heart of the village.’ The prevailing thought is it will be road work!
We had a lot of kiss-kiss-kissing at our first post-New Year choir rehearsal last week; in fact our conductor had difficulty calling us to order! Your village isn’t doing too badly, then, with only one death to four births. Also, there is a trend for people to leave the big city in search of the good life – like us foreigners. These things have stemmed the tide of rural depopulation to an extent.
We have our vœux to look forward to on Sunday, but we are much smaller than you are as there are less than 400 of us, but we still managed about 20 births this year! Must be something in the water!
20 births for a population of 400 isn’t bad. In fact, on last night’s news they had a feature about Germany and why it’s doing so much better than France. Apparently, the only area where France outdoes the Germans is in the birthrate – 2.01 per woman, so the replacement rate is kept up.
Your commune offers a very different picture from mine (in the Pays de Gex, just outside Geneva): here, the villages are growing at a frightening pace, as transfrontaliers prefer the cheaper food and housing of France but the bigger salaries and wider range of jobs of Switzerland. There is construction work everywhere and I think it’s pretty obvious where the local budget is going: there are several new classes having to be formed at school every year…
So I don’t know which is preferable: a thriving rural community which is becoming a suburb of the big city and losing most of its traditions, or a traditional smaller community which is gradually dying out. I wonder if there is anything between these two extremes.
I should perhaps redress the balance by saying that the population of our commune has grown slightly in the 2000s from a low point in the 1990s. This is partly due to the influx of foreigners and the increase of homeworking with the internet; but there are more younger French people around, too. Nonetheless, the births are less than the deaths. There is a fair bit of building work, too, but that’s mainly because French people have more sense than to live in the stone refrigerators we Brits favour! So it is a mixed picture and parts of the SW, e.g. around Toulouse, have been booming in recent years.