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Last Updated: Tuesday, 17 April 2007, 06:04 GMT 07:04 UK
Rural France struggles to survive
By Lucy Ash
Presenter, France versus the World

Laurent Reversat
Laurent Reversat works in one of France's poorest regions
With farms disappearing and concern about waning subsidies, many worry rural France is in crisis. Along with unemployment, race relations and a sluggish economy, the future of the French countryside is a key, and highly emotive, issue in the presidential election campaign.

A crimson sun is setting behind the wooded hillside in the southern Aveyron region as Laurent Reversat - whose flock of 350 ewes produces the creamy milk used to make Roquefort cheese - herds his sheep into the milking shed.

"I've been a farmer for 10 years and in that time many little farms around here have just vanished", he says.

"What we're seeing is rural desertification."

Misspent money

Some might wonder why the mood in the countryside today is so despondent. After all, France is the world's second largest agricultural exporter after the US; it is also the biggest single beneficiary of the Europe's Common Agricultural Policy or CAP.

Every year, over $10bn, more than a fifth of European subsidies, go to French farmers.

According players
Many feel the traditional character of rural life is disappearing
But one problem is that most of the European money is not going to the small farmers who are often seen as guardians of the countryside. Instead, the lion's share goes to the giant agribusinesses and cereal farms in northern France, renowned for their heavy dependence on fertilisers and pesticides.

Pierre Boulanger, a Paris based academic who has investigated the distribution of subsidies in France says the money from Europe is misspent and runs against citizens' interests.

"The fact is we are in a totally frozen situation," he says.

"The past big beneficiaries are still the big beneficiaries of today and tomorrow."

Farm subsidies are often associated with overproduction, but the system dates back to the founding of the European Union when there were real concerns about food shortages.

Pushed out

France's post-war leader, General de Gaulle, said that a country that cannot feed itself is not a great country. And still today food self-sufficiency, like France's nuclear deterrent, is seen as crucial to France's geopolitical independence.

"What is the point of being the second biggest European country - geographically speaking - after Germany if we just turn our land into a desert?" asked right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy, addressing a meeting of farmers and fishermen.

Meanwhile Segolene Royale, the socialist party candidate, has spoken of the "strong internal serenity" of her childhood in a small village in eastern France.

The image of fallow land and empty villages strikes fear into many French hearts. La France Profonde - rural France - is as important to the country's identity at home and abroad as the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower.

Richard Villaplana
We get a lot of unemployed and single parent families turning up here in a real state of crisis, asking us to house them
Richard Villaplana, mayor, Fayet

But whereas 40 years ago a fifth of the population worked on the land, now there are less than 600,000 farmers - and about half of those may disappear in the next 20 years.

And recently, many of those repopulating the countryside are outsiders - between 1999 and 2004, two million city people moved there.

Very few became farmers. Some are commuters; others are middle class immigrants from the UK, the Netherlands, Germany and other parts of northern Europe.

But according to Richard Villaplana, mayor of the little village of Fayet in the Aveyron, the new arrivals included a very different category of people - the urban underclass, pushed out of the cities because they cannot afford the rents.

"We get a lot of unemployed and single parent families turning up here in a real state of crisis, asking us to house them," he says.

"Of course people like to help each other, but you have to realise that some of my villagers get less than unemployment benefit."

Community

Mr Villaplana adds that in the hard land of the Aveyron, people are proud and fiercely independent, and do not understand why anyone should live off the state.

"There are farmers or construction workers in my village on low wages who are not eligible for state aid, and have less money to spend than those on the dole," he says.

Farmer milking a cow
Rural life is changing - but there are fewer farmers every year
"People here aren't setting fire to cars like youth in the suburbs of big cities, but they are suffering too."

But many of the newcomers have not come through choice, and find it hard to adapt to life in the countryside.

And with farming in decline and a chronic lack of jobs in much of the countryside, it is difficult for the new arrivals to become integrated.

Meanwhile Laurent Reversat feels a sense of community remains the most valuable thing about life in the countryside - and he says that is why he chose to become a farmer.

"When I was small I thought it was the cows and the tractors that I liked on my grandmother's farm, but now I realise that what was most important for me was that everybody worked together," he recalls.

"We would bring in the hay and at eleven at night we would play petanque. There was a great solidarity with the village as an extended family. It was something magnificent... everything that we've lost in 30 years."

You can hear Lucy Ash's four-part BBC series France versus the World, broadcast on the BBC World Service.




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