Maybe we’ll always have Paris, but that doesn’t mean we all have to live there, does it? Not only is there life outside the City of Light, but lots of French people are starting to think there’s a better life.
Relax, everyone: of course Paris is chic. In fact, the axe on which the universe revolves runs straight through the Etoile, alright? I just said that to get your attention.
Why don’t you live in Paris?
But I was recently called on to explain to a friend of mine that there is more to France than Paris when she asked—in a tone more bewildered than challenging—why I don’t live in Paris.
At first, I couldn’t really come up with a good answer other than the truth, which is that we can’t afford to live in Paris. (Have you ever noticed how seldom the truth makes for a good answer? At least, that is, a simple truth; a heavily embroidered truth is a different, and much better, story, of course.)
At any rate, to a real Parisian (as to a real New Yorker), this answer is no answer at all. Of course it costs more! It’s the very axe on which the universe revolves and that kind of address doesn’t come cheap! Only rubes would even think to calculate the importance of waking every morning smack dab in the centre of civilized life on the crass basis of cost per square metre.
But then, while travelling on the Métro to see that very friend in Paris, a poster caught my eye for an event coming up June 1-2 in Limoges: Projets En Campagne.
This two-day conference is the fourth outreach event organized by the Limousin region and the collectif Ville Campagne to attract les citadins. And it’s been working; la France rélativement profonde is très tendance. Pigalle is out and le poulailler is in.
Or, at any rate, this upcoming event demonstrates a real and numerically significant demographic trend: the reverse migration to the commune rurale, defined as a community with less than 2,000 inhabitants. There’s even a word for these people (unfortunately, one difficult to pronounce): les néo-ruraux.
Too poor for Paris
What a relief to see that poster and know that I’m not simply too poor to live in Paris, I’m néo-rurale!
Currently, three-quarters of the French population lives in what qualifies as an urban area; the rest are the only ones who understood what the recent presidential campaign slogan ‘La ruralité d’abord!’ meant. (From the parti Chasse, Pêche, Nature et Tradition. )
But according to a poll from the organisers of this fourth Foire à l’installation en milieu rural in Limoges, eight million French people are right now planning a move to the countryside, a million more than this same time last year. Half of these are young salaried employees and a good portion say they are willing to change jobs or even careers to make it happen. (These numbers may not sound huge, but keep in mind that Ségolène Royal could only claim 17 million votes in the second round.)
What are these people looking for? According to a 2005 study from French market-analysis firm Ipsos, these reborn country mice want:
- A better quality of life (79 percent, but then who doesn’t want a better quality of life?)
- A new start (38 percent)
- To find their ‘roots’ (25 percent)
- To live in a region they like (24 percent)
- To participate in the development and redevelopment of the countryside (14 percent)
I think this is an interesting and important trend in terms of the evolution of modern France, but also because the wave of British expats who have moved to France in the past 10 years are most certainly part of this phenomenon. In fact, I would argue that the British rehabilitation of the Dordogne, and now in recent years the Limousin, helped inspire this phenomenon. All those handy-with-a-hammer Brits demonstrated that not only is this lifestyle attractive, but — given ADSL access — can be practical and, yes, chic!
The British movement
These British expats share the tensions of these demographic changes as well: they help carry the blame for a 60 percent increase in agricultural land prices over the past 10 years; they must confront the rural mayors who love the newly arrived tax-payers but not necessarily their difficult-to-finance demands for services like after-school care and nursery schools; and, inevitably, they suffer some of the blows in the culture clash between not just the French and the English, but between the ‘real’ paysans and the néo-ruraux.
The point is that this movement back to the countryside is not isolated to the Brits but is a broader trend amongst the French population. These people even have their own television station now, Demain TV, and a magazine, Village. Both of them offer practical advice and resources but also ‘success stories’ like that of Emmanuel Vaxelaire who became the first télécommandier in France, that is, he is making a living fixing remote controls near Dijon or Julie and Dominique, a pair of professional musicians who play vegetables. (Both examples taken from the Village website.)
How does this couple make music with squash stems and lettuce leaves? Beats me. But what I love about these stories is that they counter the stereotype of the French lacking in entrepreneurial imagination and the nerve for taking big risks because, let’s face it, what could be more risky than taking up courgette percussion?
But doesn’t it make the world more interesting that someone has? Is it too utopian to think that this is the kind of person who will transform the future of France?
Maybe but I do like these stories and partly because I recognise my own family somewhere in here: my husband and I have conventional jobs and our commune rurale is rapidly becoming more of a bedroom community of Nantes than a village. But to me, having never lived outside a city before, being out of reach of pizza-delivery means Country Living and I like to think that our choice to not live in Paris is part of a Bigger Picture.
I don’t want to sound all Little House in the Prairie about it…but when I see my kids trot off with a gang of other little kids to go play in the field behind our house and pick blackberries and come home all dirty and scratched up from climbing trees and rolling around in said countryside, it’s worth all the things I myself feel deprived of by not living in Paris, including the envy of my peers who think France ends at the Périphérique.
Clair Whitmer / Expatica