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

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

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?

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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.

‘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.

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Member comments

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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…

  8. 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).

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