OPINION: Rural France has reason to be grateful to Paris yet resentment runs deep

Many voters in rural France remain unhappy and resentful of the government in Paris, writes John Lichfield. The arrival of high-speed internet and new roads should be celebrated, but will they improve the mood in the French countryside or make matters worse?

The village of Arromanches in northern France
picture taken on June 6, 2014 shows the village of Arromanches. Photo: AFP/JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD

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.

READ ALSO: ‘Slow, unreliable, expensive’- What’s the internet in rural France really like?

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.

‘Execute them’

“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.

Read More from John Lichfield:

Member comments

  1. Good morning
    Rural France for us is near to Cahors in the South West. Yes they have been laying fibre optic cable everywhere – but in the process they have in 80% of the cases cut off the landlines of local people and then left them without telephones or internet for 2 to 3 months – as its not for them to repair and Orange has now sub-contracted out their engineering work to a team of people who either do not turn up or when they do, say its not their remit to fix the lines. People then have to wait for another set of people to turn up who are generally very bad tempered at having to clear up after the others………….. and on it goes.

    In my neighbour’s case, an 85 year old woman with a pacemaker, her phone was cut off for 3 months and it was only when I wrote to Paris, Mme Dulac at Orange, that she was finally reconnected. Mobile phones do not work in our area so she had no means of contact with anyone during that time and lives in a remote area.

    I am not a total country person having lived in London for 30 years before moving to Hereford – a good apprenticeship before moving to France 25 years ago – but that move made us realise that London didn’t have much clue about the countryside, particularly during the foot and mouth outbreak. They should have left their offices to see for themselves what the countryside was about – and the same with Paris. They have tried to put 150metre wind turbines in our area and thought after a very short trial period that they could go ahead with it – but the ‘suits from Paris’ had not taken on board the locals. We have very little wind in our area and are on the GR65 with fantastic countryside in the Quercy Blanc…………huge wind turbines dotted around with no wind and when asked the team from Paris could not say who would maintain them – only what subsidies they would give to people to try and woo them over.

    We still have a foot in London but our residency is the Quercy Blanc so we have a view of both sides…………… and in our area they would rather have us ‘foreigners’ than arrogant Parisians which says it all.

    Remember the countryside feeds Paris!
    Jan Kingsmill

    1. Countryside only feeds Paris because Paris subsidises it dearly – let’s not forget where the real money comes from (hint: it’s not from the rural areas).

  2. Oh so the rural areas don’t pay taxes just the same as the Parisians and are the poor relations!! Ha Ha but the the rural areas have a better handle of the environment and waste. Friends in Paris spend and waste and consider themselves certainly something special – so your answer is so Parisian and so arrogant and to my mind, so ill informed. Never mind. We all makes mistakes.

    1. Yes, rural areas do pay lower taxes than Paris, because their inhabitants are not as well-off as those in the large metropolitan areas, and income tax rates being progressive (no harm in that IMHO), here we go. As per rural areas having “a better handle on environment and waste”, errr, without going into agri-bashing, FNSEA is a notorious opponent of any environmental measures, and have a talk with parents whose children go to schools next to fields being sprayed with pesticides on a daily basis. As per recycling… good luck if you live in a rural area, everything in the same bin. Urban life may have its drawbacks, but, by definition, the more dense the habitat, the lighter the impact on the environment (think one or two cars necessary in grande banlieue or deep Normandy vs… zero in Paris-petite couronne, or Lyon, or Lille downtown). On the whole, J. Lichfield is a journalist and looks at the figures, in those boring Cour des Comptes reports: they show that rural areas benefi t from solidarité nationale (et européenne), even if they remain poorer, because it is not where the highest paid jobs are available. Finally, you can’t eat your cake and have it: personally, I am more than happy to live in Paris intra-muros, for a series of reasons, but, yes, I would welcome less car pollution, a cleaner daily environment, a lower cost of living, etc. But it’s a choice. On the other hand, we constantly hear people having chosen to live in rural areas (ie not farmers) bitching about déserts médicaux, poor public transport, fermeture des services publics, des maternités (as if you were spending more than one day a year in these places… ). I remember the gilets jaunes, those suburban rednecks, saying that we Parisians did not understand them because we had the métro. As if it were a privilege! Be my guest to commute every morning and evening…

  3. We pay 4000 euros a year tax d’hab and tax fonciere. Income tax now based on our last year’s earning another 8000.euros. In this small village in the Aube several of the nicest houses have been bought by parigauds who leave them empty for 11 months of the year and this has pushed up house prices for all. Both retired now. Don’t feel subsidised. As for fibre, I receive loads of internet ads and a test your eligibilty. Usually, hopefully end of 2023. The word ‘hopefully’ I think means later. I am not unduly bothered however as the vdsl works fine in spite of a bedroom tv 40 mtrs away from livebox and only working on wi-fi. The main tv on ethernet is brilliant. I also don’t consider a village population 1800 small. We do have a surgery with 3 doctors, a pharmacie, and inter marche

  4. Interesting performance on your internet… but I think you meant “bits” when you used “bytes”. If you really meant “bytes” then that’s impressive performance.

  5. similar place to you jan.kingsmill. Very, very tired of promises by Paris government to bring us fibre. We have copper wire so slow it’s not worth trying to use a box. Meanwhile the mobile signal, adequate for many years, is disappearing like the bus services also disappeared. And we are not so remote.

    I’ll believe fibre when I see it here – so many new promises for so many new year dates broken. There seems no legislation for a minimum level of services for all – strange as France seems quite good at legislation. Services-wise we got worse over a long period, was quite a bit better longer ago.

  6. In the ongoing dispute between Paris and rural France – the argument will always be are you a ‘townie’ or not.
    If you want lots of public services, lots of places to eat and shop, then you need to be where there is people.
    If you can live without everything on your doorstop – then rural France is the place to be. Yes people in Rural France tend to be poorer, because there is not work 52 weeks of the year. But also the French in Rural areas tend to be less materialistic.
    You talk about the countryside not generating wealth, but some of the richest families in France make their Money from Cognac, champagne, wine and Lavender. It also generates a fair amount of the wealth from tourism
    However, Frances biggest companies make money by exploiting everyone, like Banking, insurance and power generation that overcharge for often poor product – they of course are mainly Paris based.

  7. John Litchfield is the “miserable bastard”, not rural French. I hope the Local isn’t actually paying for his columns. What a c—-.

  8. John Litchfield is the “miserable b————“ and not rural French. I can always count an elitist and out of touch attitude when I read his columns. What a c——-.

    1. His columns always seem to provoke debate, usually because he sees the world through his personal prejudice. He makes no mention of the continuing decimation of the rural population. Politicians in big cities seem to think that fibre internet will bring people back into the countryside but that will never happen unless companies move away from the black hole of France, Paris. The greatest hope for the countryside is Anne Hidalgo.

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OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Long queues at Channel ports have caused misery for thousands of holidaymakers - and an exchange of blame between the British and French governments. John Lichfield looks at who is really to blame and how the crisis can be solved.

OPINION: UK-France travel crisis will only be solved when the British get real about Brexit

Let’s get one thing straight about the dire straits in Dover.

The long queues to pass through French passport control are not the fault of France – much less a deliberate plot by President Emmanuel Macron (as some UK newspapers suggest).

Strictly-speaking, they are not the “fault” of Brexit either. They are the fault of successive British governments who have failed to prepare for Brexit and failed to educate the British public on what Brexit means.

Leaving the EU, according to the Brexiteer gospel, has no downsides. When that lie is found out, the response is always more lies.

Yes, delays in the Channel Tunnel did prevent a full staffing of French passport-control booths for a couple of hours on Friday. Yes, that did help to build the queues of Calais-bound cars to epic proportions.

But that was only briefly responsible for the tail-backs at Dover port and not at all responsible for the similar mayhem at the Channel Tunnel terminal near Folkestone.

A former senior British official with experience of Franco-British border issues tells me: “This (problem) was nothing to do with under-staffing by the Police aux Frontières. That only seems to have lasted less than two hours.”

READ ALSO Are the French really to blame for Dover traffic chaos?

The fundamental cause was the extra time it takes to clear and stamp a British passport now the UK is no longer in the European Union – 30 seconds instead of three seconds. The infrastructure at Dover and Folkestone has not been changed because the UK government refused to do so.

The jams were made worse by the fact that the Kent motorways were already choked by stacked France-bound trucks. These are permanent jams caused by the government’s failure to accept the consequences of its decision to impose the most radical form of Brexit by abandoning the EU single market.

 The French police had 200 officers on duty in Calais and Folkestone last weekend – almost double the normal number.

They could not send more. There are not enough French passport booths and traffic lanes at either Dover or Folkestone  to cope at peak periods with the extended post-Brexit passport checks.

Will UK-France travel continue to be a nightmare all summer?

 The French government and the port authorities have been pointing this out for at least two years. 

In 2020, the UK government refused to spend £33 million (€39 million) on port improvements in the cramped Dover port, which would, inter alia, have doubled the space for French passport control.

Both the candidates to be the next British prime minister, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, have lied. They say that the blockages are entirely the fault of France. The British tabloid press prefers to personalise its mendacity. They suggest that Emmanuel Macron personally took time away from the Ukraine, energy and cost of living crises to plot to ruin British holidays.

Why did French police insist on checking every passport? Why not wave British cars through, as they once did?

There is some evidence that the French did waive the rules at the weekend to help clear the backlog. But that cannot be a permanent solution. Post-Brexit, France has a duty under EU law to stamp British passports to ensure that those without residence permits are not overstaying their 90-day allowance.

The huge blockages of last weekend are, therefore, likely to be repeated next weekend and every weekend this summer.

There is another aspect of the Dover and Folkestone crisis which the British media largely ignores. The French passport controls are on the English side of the Channel because that suits the British government.

They are part of a swap deal agreed in the Le Touquet treaty in 2003. By having British passport controls on the French side of the Channel, asylum seekers could be prevented from reaching British soil and claiming asylum.

READ ALSO What is the Le Touquet agreement and why do some French politicians want to scrap it?

There was no particular advantage to the French in having their passport checks in Kent but that was the reciprocal deal that President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed at the time.

As a result, French police take the tunnel shuttle daily over to the English side. Signal problems delayed the arrival of some of the officers on Friday – providing the UK government with a convenient lie.

Some French politicians are already campaigning for the Le Touquet treaty to be scrapped. President Macron did so before he was president.

The latest outbreak of blame-the-French nonsense in Britain will no doubt strengthen the hand of the anti-Le Touquet camp. It would be much easier (although expensive) for France to build extra passport-checking capacity on the Calais side of the straits.

That would also mean that asylum seekers could reach England before their passports are checked. That would doubtless displease the Daily Mail.

In truth, France is unlikely to abandon the Le Touquet treaty. Even more migrants and asylum-seekers would be attracted to the Pas-de-Calais. They would still be blocked from crossing by steep UK penalties on Eurotunnel and the ferry companies for carrying unauthorised passengers.

There is another reason why the French border will probably remain in Kent. The EU is introducing a system of electronic visas for non-EU travellers.

READ ALSO Passport scans and €7 fees: What is changing for EU travel?

In theory that could ease the problems in Dover. It might make things even worse if many travellers turn up without buying their €7, three-year visa in advance.

At least if they are stopped in Dover, they can be go straight home. If they were stopped in Calais, they would have to be “sent back across the Channel”, which might cause even greater problems.

There is no short-term solution to the Dover crisis. A mid-term solution is possible – a doubling of the space for French passport checks, now restricted to 12 lanes.

But that would require the British government to tell the truth about Brexit and to admit that leaving the EU can be painful and costs money.