Page last updated at 13:59 GMT, Monday, 16 March 2009

Rural France bucks economic gloom

By Alasdair Sandford
BBC News, Aurillac, France

Aurillac, France
The economic downturn has not yet been felt in Cantal, France

Far from the threatened car factories and depressed industrial areas, one part of rural France is experiencing a different type of economic crisis.

The problem is not a lack of jobs: rather there are not enough people to fill the vacancies on offer.

In the Cantal - a remote rural area in southern, central France known for its cheese and its volcanic mountains - unemployment is under 5% compared to a national average of 8.2%.

Companies are having problems finding even lowly qualified staff.

Booming backwater

In a large hangar, a welder puts the finishing touches to a rounded metallic structure.

Outside in the bright sunshine, cranes lift the pieces into place alongside a line of oval concrete slabs.

Herve Blanc, Matiere
We're going to look for welders in Portugal, in Poland and the Czech Republic
Herve Blanc, Matiere director

Matiere is a civil engineering firm specialising in pipes, tunnels and bridges.

In contrast to the trials and tribulations of companies elsewhere, it is expanding rapidly.

Turnover is expected to be almost double this year, up from 40m euros (37m) in 2008 to 75m euros.

Its export business is booming, thanks partly to the success of a new type of metal bridge Matiere has developed.

The company has contracts in Africa, the Caribbean, Iraq and the Philippines.

It wants to recruit about 25 people to add to its workforce of 250. It needs engineers, drivers, site managers, surveyors, and financial staff.

But the firm is having trouble finding them.

Director Herve Blanc believes one reason is the Cantal's image as something of a rural backwater.

"When you speak about the Cantal you think about green mountains, cows and cheese," he says.

"But you don't think about hi-tech companies".

Recruitment fair

Similar problems encountered by other businesses prompted the local chamber of commerce to mount a special operation.

It organised a recruitment fair - not in Aurillac, the main town, but hundreds of kilometres away in Paris.

A delegation of company bosses went to the French capital armed with a hundred job offers - mainly in industry, but also in pharmaceuticals, services, and IT.

The one-day event attracted more than 500 jobseekers from the Paris area. Twenty-five were taken on by local companies, and several firms are still interviewing candidates they met.

Bernard Bouniol, president of the chamber of commerce, hailed the operation as a success.

"It's proof that there are many people who no longer tolerate Parisian life, and who are ready to come and live and work in the provinces," he says.

New arrival

One such exile is Vincent Dalban-Moreynas.

Vincent Dalban-Moreynas
Vincent prefers life in Aurillac to his old home town of Paris

The 33-year-old had lived in Paris for ten years, working in human resources.

He has now started a new job in the Cantal - with McDonalds.

The fast-food chain joined the recruitment delegation to the capital because it could not find a manager for its Aurillac restaurant locally.

Vincent was invited to visit for two days, all expenses paid, and offered the job.

He, his wife and two children are swapping their Parisian flat for a large house with a huge garden - only too happy to leave the big smoke.

"We didn't need to have 100 restaurants and 600 cinemas and 1,200 McDonalds," he says. "If we could have the same number of birds and cows and bees that would be great. So that's why we moved."

But each year many young people leave the Cantal in search of brighter lights elsewhere, leaving behind an ageing population.

The lack of young recruits poses a particular problem for the banks.

Each year Credit Agricole struggles to fill up to fifty vacancies in the Cantal - and more than two hundred across the region.

"The problem is that in practice you have to find a job for the young person and also for their partner, and that's difficult," argues Guy Maury, Credit Agricole's human resources director for central France.

"We explain that there can be more career opportunities than elsewhere as there's less competition - so you can get promoted more easily and quickly."

Looking overseas

Some firms in the Cantal have taken to trawling unemployment blackspots elsewhere in France seeking to fill posts.

Matiere, the engineering firm, has toured shipyards which were making people redundant, but it failed to find the workers it needed.

Director Herve Blanc says the company is now looking abroad.

"We're going to look for welders in Portugal, in Poland and the Czech Republic," says Mr Blanc.

"Even though we advertise a lot in France, it's very difficult to find these skilled workers. It's hard to make the French leave their region to come to the Cantal."

The chamber of commerce is now planning another recruitment drive - this time bringing potential employees to Aurillac to look around.

Its message: the Cantal may not be the world's liveliest place, but it can offer something extremely rare in grim economic times: an oasis of full employment.

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