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ANALYSIS: How France killed its small towns and why money is not the answer

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ANALYSIS: How France killed its small towns and why money is not the answer
Troyes is one of 222 towns set to receive investment from the French government. Photo: openroads.com/Flickr
08:41 CEST+02:00
The problem of France's dying town centres has recently come to the attention of the country's politicians and they are trying to solve it with money. But it's going to take more than that, argues French author Olivier Razemon.
A recent poll revealed that more French people prefer small to medium-sized towns such as Poitiers, Niort, Brive-la-Gaillarde, Blois or Saint-Brieuc to the country's largest cities, such as Paris, Lyon and Lille. 
 
But despite their apparent popularity many smaller towns are in fact struggling and many of them have suffered a drop in the population. 
 
"The situation in small to medium-sized French towns is bad and for many of them it is getting worse," Olivier Razemon, the author of a recent study called How France Killed Its Towns, tells The Local. 
 
"People are continuing to leave these towns, leaving housing vacant, and businesses struggling as a result of a declining customer base."
 
Razemon argues that due to the fact that important public services, such as hospitals and courthouses, as well as public and private facilities, including health centres, swimming pools and cinemas are being cut in these towns, jobs are declining and people are even more inclined to leave. 
 
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There is a feeling among many in these towns that they have simply been neglected by the state.
 
Many inhabitants of small and medium-sized towns have the impression their "town centres were dying" a sentiment which is backed by the fact that stats reveal towns under 200,000 people have an increasing amount of vacant retail space compared to bigger cities.
 
These same inhabitants also feel their towns are neglected by the country's politicians in favour of the country's main cities, including the French capital where big investments such as the Grand Paris Express have been approved in recent years. 
 
An urban planning expert at the University of Paris Diderot said back in February that "since the year 2000 successive governments have been revising public policies and the main public services have seen a decline that has mainly hit towns with less than 50,000 people." 
 
Razemon argues that after only recently acknowledging an issue that has been affecting French towns for decades, there is still too much of a focus on revitalising commercial activity in them. 
 
"This problem has not occurred due to anything malicious on the part of successive French governments but because of a lack of thought. Each town needs to be looked at case by case so a solution can be found for its particular situation. 
 
"It doesn't make sense to focus on creating more shops in towns where people can't afford to spend money, because the shops will eventually be forced to close and the cycle will repeat itself," he says. 
 
 
Razemon argues that the way to solve the problem is to look at towns as a whole and work out how they should function. 
 
"Some towns in France have a lot of car parks so that people can visit the centre but they don't have cafés near them or free spaces where people can spend time.
 
"Towns need to be pleasant places to be, not just places to spend money. There need to be places to walk, pedestrianised areas - many don't have that and it's not good.
 
"It's as much about how towns work. We need to think about where shops are placed, about where buses stop."
 
The author continued: "There is no miracle solution but it's important to be aware of the problem. Unfortunately this isn't just about a commercial crisis - that would be simpler to fix.
 
"The commercial aspect is just a visible part of the problem," he said, adding that towns filled with boarded up shops is a striking image associated with these "dying towns". 
 
France's neglected towns was one of many issues exposed by the anti-government 'yellow vest' movement, which demonstrated the division between the everyday realities experienced by those living in metropolitan, well-serviced cities and those in towns which have been in decline for decades. 
 
'
Yellow vest' protesters clashing with police at an anti-government demonstration in Lorient, a small town in France. Photo: AFP
 
It is in these towns where inhabitants are forced to rely on cars and therefor suffer when the price of petrol rises.
 
"People were aware of the problem before but the 'yellow vest' movement helped to highlight it," says Razemon.
 
More positively, the French government does have plans for some of these struggling towns.
 
Last year it unveiled a list of 222 French towns whose centres will be given millions of euros to be revitalized. 
 
The "Action Coeur de Ville" plan will see €5 billion spent on rejuvenating the centres of 222 medium sized towns across the country over the next five years. 
 
Town authorities will be able to use the cash on an array of development projects, including housing, transport, education, cultural and sports offerings.
 
The list of towns that made the cut include Douai, Lorient, Troyes, Colmar, Limoges, Mont-de-Marsan, Avignon and Perpignan. 
 
"I am convinced that medium-sized towns are an essential area for the development of our territories," said Minister of Territorial Cohesion Jacques Mézard when the plan was revealed.
 
"Their vitality is essential because it benefits the entire town, and more broadly the surrounding urban and suburban areas. The heart of the city, in all the diversity of the French urban fabric, is the melting pot where civic life, economic life, social life is formed."
 
But while this investment is undoubtedly positive, that still leaves thousands of French towns - and their populations - left to struggle on alone. 
 
Olivier Razemon is the author of How France Killed its Towns
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aquitaineguy - 13 Jun 2019 16:42
Come visit Auch, Agen, Villeneuvre sur Lot, Marmande, Montabaun et al
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