All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Shat on from a great height

Paris:: église Saint-MédardImage by fredpanassac via Flickr

Not far away from where I first lived is a little town that I scarcely visit these days. It is run down, has social problems and is on the way out, yet it should be one of jewels of tourist France and a cultural hub for its area.

Imagine if you were planning to visit France and someone proposed a town with part of its medieval walls and massive gatehouses intact....a wonderful church with a magisterial carved frontage....a medieval town centre with timber framed houses and little winding alleyways leading down to the river below, the whole thing dominated by a chateau perched on its rocky base. You would probably jump at the chance to visit it.

Well, when you did, you would be deeply disappointed. Yes, the town has all these attractions, but does nothing with fact, it seems perversely to want to negate their impact.

You arrive, and seek the tourist office. Twenty years ago, it was run by volunteers, in the centre of the old town and you would walk down the shopping area to get to it from the main car park on the old market place. You were already in the heart of things.

Then it was moved to the market place 'to be more accessible'. It was accessible where it was, in a half timbered building at an angle to the old church, so what was meant was 'accessible from the parking area'. Then council money came in and they got rid of the volunteers. Nice young things from goodness knows where took over the counters in the summer months, doing their 'stage' - training - no doubt for some diploma in tourism, and events started to be held. Night markets...story tellers and conjurers accompanying walks round the town. A fortune was spent on chateau images in metal implanted on the pavements.

What you could no longer do was consult leaflets either about the town and its attractions or about what was happening or available in the general area. To 'avoid waste', these were all kept in drawers of the filing cabinet to be produced if asked for...which begs the question

'How do you know to ask about something if you don't know it exists?'

Recently in an epic power struggle between factions of local government, the tourist office is to be moved to the outskirts of the town, where local government conveniently has spare office space due to the failure of yet another of its wild schemes. How the tourist is to find it is a puzzle. Where the tourist is to park having found it is yet another...there is only on-street parking, all taken up already by local government workers.

The main market used to spread from the market place, with the nineteenth century market building, down the main shopping street to the clothes market near the old tourist office, so, at least once a week, people would be drawn past the shops in that street and business was flourishing. Then, there was concern on the part of the council about the circulation of traffic. The market area was drawn back to the main marketplace, and commerce lower down in the town atrophied. Already, the town faced competition from two supermarkets installed in communes on its outskirts, so you would think, if only out of a sense of responsibility to its ratepayers, it would do something to keep commerce going in the centre.

Not at all. The town had set up two industrial estates, and its tax income from the enterprises installed there let it ignore the dying heart of the town. As commerce died out, rates went up. The only first class restaurant closed its doors. That was fifteen years ago and the hulk of the building is still there, its roof green with algae and the windows falling apart, the wreck of a sixteenth century wonder. No one will take it on. The shopping street became a desert of empty plate glass windows. A tattooist installed himself.....the only active commerce for some hundred metres and indicator of another phenomenon. The population change.

The centre used to house families, but mostly in rented property. The 'big' families of the town, heirs of notaires for the most part, owned the houses and saw that it was much more profitable to turn these properties into studio flats, as there were council grants for the conversion. The council led the way, turning a magnificent medieval hostelry into poky flats, ruining the interior and where the council led, others were quick to follow. The old centre became a ghost town of the unemployed and single, empty of commerces because they did their shopping at the supermarkets on the edge of town and decidedly unpleasant to frequent at night as the population changed yet again - younger people from the Paris area, bringing their habits of all sorts with them. Trash built up, dog turds littered the streets, and the council was unconcerned despite the calls of the original inhabitants of the area to have something done. The rates went up again.

A notaire - from the North of France - decided that the old centre could be turned round if a few people started to renovate the old buildings that were available for sale, and formed a group of like minded people with a bit of money to try to start on the area around the church. They faced nothing but obstacles as, not only was there the normal planning permission to be obtained for change to exteriors but because the area was one close to historical monuments, further permissions had to be obtained from the departmental architect of 'Batiments de France' - something like English Heritage.

These gentlemen, once appointed, are difficult to shift and run their departmental policies as they please. The one in place at the time of the notaire's initiative had an obsession with covering all walls in 'crepi' - rendering - in a colour described as 'ton pierre' - stone colour- but which would be more accurately be described as shit yellow. Now, this town was noted for not only its half timbered dwellings, but also for the buildings in local stone, built like the town walls, more than a metre thick, and it was this feature that the architect wanted to cover in - shit.
He had managed to have this done this to the medieval ramparts of a town down the road, with the result that the bastion overlooking the river now looks as though a giant had had an bowel movement while touring the area....and this is the sort of person entrusted with France's architectural heritage.

The notaire persisted and has a wonderful house, but most of his friends gave up, defeated by the beaurocracy and sheer resistance that they encountered. The town council sat on its' hands. It had the revenues from the industrial estate, after all. The town centre continued its' decline.

Two years ago, there was a suspicious death in one of these studio apartments and finally the police intervened in what had become an area of drug trading and sleaze. The council was forced to take action and sent in a councillor to hear complaints. He was blown backwards bow legged by the volume of said and the council set up an action group meant to improve conditions.

What has it produced? A plan to ban parking in the little square by the church. More litter bins...which have had to be protected by knee high concrete surrounds to prevent larrikins overturning them. As one long term resident was reported as saying

'If I'd put up a thing like that, I'd have been fined and made to take it down.'

How true that is. His story is echoed all round the old centre. People who want to make it come to life again, who want to restore it, who want to make it an area where tourists would like to come and spend their money are being prevented by a lack of initiative at all levels. Worse, obstructionism.

Why might that be? Go to the notaire, now retired and having to put security devices on the doors and windows of his lovely house.

'Simple. The big families still profit from these studio rentals. They don't want anything to change and they still control the place, whichever party they say they're from. The other thing they don't want is outsiders making a penny from anything in the town. The town is for them and their kind. It's not for us.'

So, take heart, immigrants to France. It is not only that France is for the French, and not for us, but that each town is for its 'owners', and not even for other French.

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  1. Montlucon? We were there this summer and it was the first place where I've seen with motorcycle gang types and police on watch. The inner town is medieval but you have to drive through a lot of ugliness to get there. The hotel had a locked inner gate for cars to park in their courtyard. It was a lovely old hotel but I wouldn't go back to the town.

  2. Zuleme, should i start a guessing game? With more clues each week, or everyone to suggest their own candidate? Could be fun and revealing, but not what the French Tourist Board would appreciate.
    There are lots of towns where, just due to economic development you have to drive through a lot of grot to get to thehistoric centre. It's a pity that in this town,when you get there you are so disappointed by the state of things.
    So sad when there are people ready and willing to improve things, spending their own money to do so, but thwarted at every turn.

  3. I know what you mean - I have seen it in my area... I love this part of La Belle France - but yes, oh yes, it is definitely France for the French, so many English going back and as for the towns - France rules!!

  4. Trisha, I know you have a lovely area of France, and also that you know how much more could be done with a bit of initiative! Pity the French don't have any...or, rather, that their system knocks it out of them early on. The one bright spot on your horizon is the new head of the local tourist office who seems to be getting it together better than his local counterparts. He even gives out dates of events!Roll on the Highland Games!

  5. I could wish in Spain that they were somewhat more conservative, as nothing here seems to delight so much as the contrast between ultra-modern architecture and historical buildings, but not as conservative as you describe. This really sounds like the last stand of the generals - this kind of attitude is surely not sustainable?

  6. Coming here is not only a pleasure, but also to read such elegant writing is magnificent of late, and an education into the interesting lives of others.

    A pot of strong tae, and a wander through your blog is now a part of my day.

  7. Pueblo girl, you have not seen the half! alongside the chateau...almost unique in being comletely built in the seventeenth century and not added to since, the council had the good idea of putting a sixties swimming pool - in the eighties, when the vogue hit this region - all glass and concrete, under the classic walls of the cour d'honneur.

    The worst thing is that this blasted 'crepi' was only introduced to the area very late in the nineteenth Italian masons! And this fool of an architect de Batiment de France takes this as his reference! For medieval and renaissance buildings!

    I loved that little town, but it makes me too sad to go there now, when I have to see what has happened to it. There are still some beautiful houses, where I had friends, now dead. Their heirs are busy knocking them into nasty little studios.

    I know that people without much money have to live somewhere...goodness knows the holes I lived in as a student...but that is no excuse to divide up and ruin historic buildings for private profit.

    Goodness only knows, I kick up enough about the Nastional Trust allowing the gormless heirs of gormless ancestors to keep a flat in the family home, but what is happening to historic architecture in France is a crying disgrace.

    Worse when you do have people keen to do something, they are not only discouraged, but fought, tooth and nail.
    Rant never over.

  8. Jimmy Bastard, first, thank you for your encouragement of Frances at France and The
    Unknown. All the bleeding hearts, with the honourable exception of Ayak in Turkey, ignored my request.
    If I didn't before, I know now how to grade them.
    Ah isn't the 'tae' worldwide for civilised peoples...'chai' for my Turkish builder is the same thing as the 'char' for my father in the army.
    And do you not think that I await your posts with anticipation? And a Highland Park?

  9. Addendum. I should say that not all the people who read my blog are in the 'bleeding heart' category....but I find the lack of reaction of those that are.... interesting.

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  11. The way some of these villages and towns are run is very dispiriting. All the big money in France goes towards the famous name cities that pull in the crowds - it's as if the 'little people' on the outskirts really do not matter.

    In a neighbouring town a swimming pool needed 25,000 for repairs. The local council applied for funds from the money purse and were turned down. 25k is nothing in the scheme of things and would have made a huge difference to the community.

    Your blog post was a cry from the heart and perhaps you should get it translated into French and sent to your local paper.

  12. French Fancy, there has been a long campaign in the local paper - not from the paper itself, perish the thought, but from people living there or in the area, calling for action.Result? Sweet Fanny Adams.
    The last deputy wasn't interested because he was UMP and the town always votes left. The current depute - PS - lives at the other end of the constituency, and the town always votes left anyway, so he's not bothered either.
    The worst thing is that the town council don't give a hoot. They're not going to ask for money, and if they're overthrown at the next elections, their opponents won't either. It is absolutely amazing to me that they can all sit and watch their historic town turning into a dump.
    No chance of a citizens' revolt, either. The 'social housing' vote is massive.
    I find it heartbreaking to see what is happening to a beautiful place.

  13. How sad that this is happening. It happens here too, and soon there will be very little of the country's history to enjoy. And how frustrating that those who want to change or restore things for the better, are unable to do so.
    Very interesting post.

  14. Ayak, what a pity that is. Everywhere i went in turkey i saw interesting buildings..most not too well cared for. A shame if they are let go...

  15. I really don't know how one can turn things around out here. It seems to me the French just turn a blind eye to various things and then - once a cause *is* adopted - they move heaven and earth to see right prevail.

    I think this 'sink estate' thing is happening more and more in the UK. I didn't know it was also happening here (except for some of the Paris banlieus) In our pretty little town we have two little mini-estates for social housing but so far no problems.

  16. Yes, I did realise I had commented already but this deserved two replies :)

  17. What I would call council housing is really good and the tenants take great care of it. It is in the 'newer' part of the town too.
    The problem lies with the historic centre, which is where the private landlords have been busy chopping up these wonderful houses into studio flats you woudn't house a dog in if you liked animals, with the benefit of council grants...and a guarantee that the rent will be paid from the tenants' benefits.

    When it comes to votes, the councl tenants won't vote for any action to be taken in the centre, even if candidates put themselves up, for two reasons.
    1. It will cost and the private landlords will want to be what they have done is legal.
    2. The 'list' system of individual candidate stands a chance against the party machines.

  18. A woman after my own heart, I have written a few blog posts like this myself but on reflection have given up trying to understand why the French are so hellbent on destroying their rich heritage. In the end it depressed me so much to be surrounded by 'development' that I've moved to Carcassonne where they are doing their utmost to stem the rot and preserve what they have.

  19. Sallys Chateau, depressing, isn't it? All the ballyhoo about heritage, etc., and then you see what is really happening...destruction of said heritage.