OPINION: Does rural France actually need 'saving'?

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: Does rural France actually need 'saving'?

As the government launches its latest plan to 'revitalise' rural France - village resident John Lichfield looks at the real problems of the French countryside, and whether it is as hard-done-by as it believes.


Elisabeth Borne, who happens to be my local deputy in deepest Calvados, has a plan to rescue rural France.

Doctors, buses and housing: The plan to revitalise rural France

Much of what the Prime Minister proposes make sense.

She promises a system of “medico-buses” to bring specialist doctors out of the cities into the countryside. There will be state grants to rebuild abandoned houses to provide rental homes for young people and seasonal workers. There will be money for mini-buses and communal taxi-services.

All of that is fine (though the sums promised seem rather  small).

Will the Borne Plan “rescue” rural France? Will it stop 30 percent of people in rural communes from voting for Marine Le Pen?



First, there is no such thing as “Rural France”. There are several rural Frances, ranging from the safe and relatively prosperous to the deprived and deeply troubled.

Secondly, much of rural France is already better off than rural France believes. It has shops and local services that people in rural areas in Britain could only dream about.

The greatest lie of the Gilets Jaunes was that rural and outer suburban France are taxed to fund the prosperous cities; the truth is the other way around. The French countryside is heavily subsidised by the state.

Take my own commune in the Norman hills (population 350 and rising for the first time in decades). There are seven doctors within ten kilometres; three health centres within 15 kilometres;  no shops in the village but dozens in the small towns in the valley;  a newly-installed, super-fast, broad-band cable system with speeds as high as Paris or New York.

Neglected, rural France? Not really. Not all of it.

What troubles local people, here and elsewhere, is something more intangible and existential: a loss of identity; the feeling that an old sense of community and purpose has been lost.

The local sources of prosperity and pride have gone. The small dairy farms on the hills have vanished, replaced by beef, dairy and cereal ranches. The small local factories and iron-ore mines which once provided jobs in the valley closed long ago. Most young people now commute by car to work in Caen 40 kilometres away.

We have become a community with no clear raison d’être and no longer any real sense of community.

There are certainly more deprived parts of rural France. The département to the south of us, the Orne, is big and empty and old has a problem attracting and holding onto its doctors. A little further south, in Sarthe, you drive through dusty small towns where half the shops are boarded up.

The demographer and historian Hervé Le Bras says that the real rural problems in France – poverty, delinquency, collapse of local services – are concentrated in three areas. They are Lorraine in the north-east; parts of Languedoc in the south; and a diagonal north-east to south-west stripe across the Massif Central from south of Champagne to the river Garonne.


The economist Laurent Davezies dismisses the idea that even these areas have been “abandoned” by the state. They have, he says, been abandoned by their own young people (who have emigrated to the cities) or their industries (which have closed or moved elsewhere).

The most stricken départements have seen a large increase in state employment in an attempt to keep them alive, he points out.  The state spends one third more per person in those areas than the national average (and receives 10 percent less tax).

Despite talk of “medical deserts”, even the 7,000 or so “most isolated” rural communes have access to the same number of general practitioners as the French provincial average (one doctor for every 1,000 people). The problem is that parts of France are so empty that the nearest doctor can be a long drive away.

There are several motives for Elisabeth Borne’s  plan to help the countryside announced last week. First, it is part of a bigger flurry of government activity – often rebranded or reannounced existing plans – to distract the country from its nervous breakdown over pension reform.

Secondly, it is the result of a genuine reasessement of what needs to be done and what is already working in some areas.

Thirdly, it is a response to the disturbing advance of the Far Right vote in rural France. In last  year’s presidential election, the Rassemblemnt National vote in Paris was 5.5 percent. In towns of 50,000 or more inhabitants it was 13-14 percent. In communes with 2,000 people or less it was over 30 percent.


That trend is evident in my own part of Calvados. In the small towns, Le Pen got 20 percent or less in the first round. In the hill villages she got 30 percent or more and often topped the poll.

Why? We have no crime and no foreign immigrants (except me). Few local people admit to voting RN.

The Le Pen message – France is losing its identity; things ain’t what they used to be – resonates in a rural France which has also lost its sense of identity. Country people feel excluded from the success of the cities. They see on the TV and on social media an often exaggerated view of a multi-racial urban France which is alien to them.    

Le Pen cleverly appeals directly to the rural vote. “Village France is the real France,” she said. “The rebuilding of the real France starts with you.”

This is nonsense but flattering nonsense. In truth, there can be no future for village France if France as a whole is not prosperous. Le Pen’s policies - disconnection from Europe, discrimination against immigrants - would  turn the whole of France into a village, isolated from Europe and the world.

Borne’s plan is unlikely to change these rural voting patterns; the gradual dilution of rural people by incomers may eventually do more.

Part of the problem is that France is so big and empty and has such large distances between its successful cities. From the ridge above our village, you look down on the flatlands of western France which stretch all the way to the Pyrenees. We are  one pebble among thousands on that beach, all with a similar ill-defined feeling of lost local pride and prosperity.


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Chris Chalcraft 2023/06/21 22:01
Interesting article. We live in Sarthe and l was surprised by the level of support here for Le Pen last year. I was even more surprised at how detailed the information about the numbers of who voted for whom was. Our commune is circa 250 and l could see the results just for our commune. When l tried to do the same for the UK all you get is the percentage by constituency of say 40,000 voters.
Ron Lawrence 2023/06/21 17:22
France is definitely losing its identity. You can see the culture disappearing or should I say becoming more and more British/American. Globalization is slowly killing France and other cultures. A culture without a strong identity will easily morph into whatever the dominant culture is. Aside from the endless new English words being used every month, the French are now celebrating Halloween. It wasn't like that 10 years ago. It's only a matter of time.
Meredith Wheeler 2023/06/21 16:51
In light of the Covid period, when many people worked from home, mightn't we expect that the countryside will get a new influx of young people wanting to exit cities and now able to work from home?
Jennifer Taylor 2023/06/21 13:07
I disagree with your comment about medical deserts. My daughter lives in a village on the edge of the agglo of Laval - the Prefecture of Mayenne. Last year, the only doctor in the village retired and, not only has the Commune has been unable to replace her, but the other doctors nearby are not taking new patients. Patients are now having to book a video consultation via the pharmacy, normally with a doctor in Paris.

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