A line of new telegraph poles appeared in my Norman hamlet last week. Wherever you look in the surrounding villages and hills, there are new poles and new holes.
Super-fast broadband internet – fibre optic cable to every business and home – is about to arrive in my part of La Normandie Profonde.
Just to be technical for a moment…
Very fast broadband – part cable, part satellite of at least 30 megabytes a second – is due, to cover the whole of rural France by the end of this year. Extremely fast broadband – up to two gigabytes a second, 70 times as much – is promised to every part of France over the next four years.
This is claimed to be the most ambitious programme of rural broadband in Europe, costing Euros 20bn, including Euros 3.6bn, of state, local and European Union money.
By the end of 2025, every hamlet in France will have internet access as fast and reliable as that in Paris or London or New York. My hamlet – population 8 – will be fibre-cabled by March.
Rural France remains profoundly negative
Impressive, eh? La France Profonde must be delighted. Er, not really. By my experience, La France Profonde remains profoundly negative – about itself, about national government, about the modern world.
The arrival of extremely fast broadband in my part of the world, the Calvados hills, is only part of a huge, state and local government investment here in the last decade. There are two medical centres, a sports centre, a dual-carriageway road and a wonderful 50-kilometres long cycle and footpath, following the course of a disused railway line, over river bridges and a viaduct and through a short tunnel.
Do local people appreciate all this public spending? Not much. The Gilets Jaunes, who were powerful here three years ago, have mostly disappeared. Their attitudes remain.
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The most commonly expressed view is roughly as follows. “All is for the worst in a world dominated by the elites of Paris and Brussels, who despise rural France and spend all rural taxes (and speeding fines) on immigrants and inflated political salaries.”
I came across a 60-something woman in one of my local bakeries the other day who broadcast her views as she bought ten chouquettes and a baguette.
“We are being taken for a ride again, aren’t we? All these Covid restrictions. They are going to steal Christmas again. In Paris they don’t care about us, do they? They only care about themselves and about immigrants.”
“But what’s the solution?” asked another woman in the queue.
“Execute them,” the 60 years old woman said. “Execute the immigrants.”
I asked the woman where she obtained her information and her opinions. (There are no immigrants for miles, except me and a few other Brits and a scattering of Dutch and Germans.)
“Facebook,” she said, as if she was citing the New Testament.
She was an extreme case, admittedly.
President Emmanuel Macron is also worried, it appears, about rural opinions and the rural vote. He spent a day this week in a small town in the Cher department, in the very centre of France.
He took part in a town council meeting in Châteaumeillant (pop. 1,900) but was called away for part of the time to take a phone call in the mayor’s office from President Joe Biden. (The “Châteaumeillant Summit” of 2021.)
Macron – who was NOT on the campaign trail, the Elysée Palace insisted – also went for a walk-about in the town’s shopping street.
“How are you?” he asked one old man. “Just like an old man,” the old man replied.
Châteaumeillant is one of 1,600 towns chosen to benefit from a government development programme, again partly EU-funded, called “Petites Villes de Demain” (little towns of tomorrow.
Macron fielded many questions including several about the nationwide, high-speed internet roll-out. Why was it running late in some areas? Would it really happen?
‘There is a sense of loss of identity in rural France’
There are good reasons for rural people in France to be suspicious or anxious. Local industries and agricultural jobs have been decimated in the last 30 years. New industries come but often go again.
My own part of Normandy is well-supplied with medical services and has a reasonably good bus service. Few local shops are empty. Other parts of rural France are not so lucky.
All the same, the huge investments that are made in rural France – including a secondary road system of extraordinary quality – are ignored.
Why this exaggerated hatred of Paris and the “elites”? Why this sense of being abandoned or betrayed? Why an obsession with immigrants where there are none?
A local councillor whom I know explains it well.
“There is a sense of loss of identity, of having lost all local sources of pride and prosperity, of no longer knowing who your neighbours are,” she said. “Newcomers are arriving from Caen and living in the new houses springing up everywhere. Yes, they are all French and all white, but they are still outsiders. Local people feel swamped.”
The arrival of haut-debit internet should be an economic life-line for rural France. Small businesses and remote working will be possible – or even more possible – in every tiny pebble of human habitation across this vast and empty country.
Hooray for that. But I foresee problems all the same. What will give all those isolated people in all those little pebbles the sense of community that the countryside once had?
High speed internet will allow the miserable b…, amongst them – sorry I mean “the most isolated rural people” – to download conspiracy theories even faster than they could before.
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