17 December 2020
“A way of life, not a museum”
Town v Country in France.
By Richard Pooley
When my wife and I moved to France in 2013, we spent the first seven months in a rented house on the southern edge of Brive-la-Gaillarde, a town of some 50,000 people in the south-west. One of our immediate neighbours was André, then in his mid-eighties. Although he had spent most of his working life as a postman, starting out as a teenager in newly-liberated Paris in late 1944, he had been born and brought up in the Dordogne countryside. Wipe away any image of bucolic bliss. The land he and his family lived off was misérable. During the war years they had survived, just, on chestnut flour and not much else. Seventy years later, he and his wife, Simone, a retired teacher, would spend most weekends at his inherited portion of this hardscrabble terrain. Back in Brive he tended a superbly productive vegetable garden while Simone ensured their roses were the envy of my green-fingered wife.
André and I had many a banter across the garden fence. He has been a Communist all his life, as are many older inhabitants of rural France (Marxist Jean-Luc Mélenchon scored highest of any candidate in the Dordogne department in the first round of the 2017 presidential election). As soon as André discovered I had run a small British company, he began greeting me in a mocking tone: “P.D.G.” (C.E.O.) or “Le Patron”. I soon gave up trying to convince him that I was not a rapacious capitalist. I also failed to persuade him that I was not a townie and had lived all but three of my first thirteen years in rural Hampshire. The fact that I had spent fifteen years in London and six more in Tokyo and Caracas proved that I knew nothing of the countryside. He was genuinely astonished when I managed to successfully grow tomatoes in the short time we were his neighbours. Mais, bien sûr, this was because he’d taught me how to plant them in a nettle-filled trench when the moon was new. Only a true countryman knows that’s the way to grow ‘em.
More often than not, André would follow his finger-wag greeting with “Fais attention!” The first time it was to warn me that “serpents” lay in the undergrowth I was hacking away. Nearly always it was to tell me, in the kindest yet most mournful of tones, that whatever I was doing in the garden was either dangerous or wrong.
When I told André in the summer of 2013 that we were moving to a village 30 minutes drive south of Brive, his instant response was typically lugubrious: “Les cloches! Les cloches! Sonnent trop fort, trop tôt pour toi!”
The bells of our village church do indeed ring loud and early (at 07.04 every morning, but also at 12.04 and 19.04). They can be heard in the furthest part of the commune, in a hamlet tucked under cliffs four kilometres away on the other side of the Dordogne river. When the early morning bell tolled in olden times, the Catholic faithful, already at work out in the fields, knew that it was time to pause and say the Angelus prayer. Nowadays such tolling is the signal in rural France to get up, have lunch, stop work. As I told André when he first came to Sunday lunch, the bells never bother us, even though our house is only about eighty metres from the church. He didn’t believe me.
Tolerance of country sounds and smells by townies is not the norm in France. Some 10% of French people have second homes in the countryside[i]. Often these are the old family homes from which the children left to live and work in the city. But an increasing number are houses bought by city-born folk, flush with pension money, who can afford to buy a large pad in the countryside. In addition are those who sell their town property and make a house in the country their only home. Both groups of people dream of retiring to the peace and quiet of the French countryside. And when they find their dream turning to a nightmare of bells tolling, cocks crowing, frogs croaking, cicadas sawing and cattle shitting, they assume it is the country folk who must change their centuries-old habits and not they, the incomers. Stories of legal battles between second-home owners and their new neighbours have become commonplace in the French media over the last few years.
In the village of Saint-Chartres (Vienne) a new arrival grumbled about the church bells and took the matter to court in February 2017. “[They ring] at 7 o’clock in the morning, when [I’m] with children and grandchildren, sending everybody to action stations as if war had been declared.”. In another case in Calvados a couple twice cut the cables which enabled the church bells to be rung.
French tourists also complain. Those staying recently in a presbytery in the Lozère demanded that the village mayor have the bells ring later in the morning so that they could sleep in. Tourists in the Var asked a village mayor in the summer of 2018 to do something about the incessant noise of the cicadas: “Haven’t you got insecticide you can put on the trees?”
Over 120,000 people signed a petition against a group of second-home owners in Biot (Haute-Savoie) who insisted that the mayor stop the local cattle from wearing cowbells. He refused but moved the cows’ drinking trough further away from the village.
An eight-year legal row over the noise of bullfrogs ended in December 2019. Neighbours complained about the mating calls of the occupants of a large, century-old pond on land owned by a couple in the village of Grignols, south-west of Périgueux. The first court told the couple to drain the pond and pay €150 a day if they did not do so, despite the fact that the water contained a protected species of frog. The final appeal court decided that the pond must be filled in even though the protected frog had been removed. The judge, a townie surely, did not want the sleep of later human incomers to be broken by any amphibian returnees.
The most famous battles involve a cockerel, that symbol of France found atop many a war memorial. The most recent concluded on 7 December with the murderer of Marcel the Cockerel in the tiny village of Vinzieux (Ardèche) being given a five-month suspended sentence, fined €300 and banned from carrying a gun for three years. Infuriated by Marcel’s early morning crowing, a neighbour had shot and impaled him on an iron bar in May this year. Marcel’s owner, Sébastien Verney, declared in his petition addressed to the Minister of Agriculture that:
“Our rural activities, our animals have the right to exist and to live in peace… So, who will be the next victim: the call of the turtle doves[ii], the wheat harvest, our growing tomatoes , the braying of a donkey, the sound of our bells, the grazing of our cows?”
Monsieur Verney told reporters: “The countryside is a way of life, not a museum.”
His petition was signed by over 98,000 people.
This followed on from the case of Maurice the Cockerel in Saint-Pierre-d’Oléron (Charente-Maritime). His owner, Corinne Fesseau, was taken to court in 2017 by new arrivals moaning about his crowing next to their second home. At first they won and Madame Fesseau was given a fortnight to remove or silence him. But she won on appeal in September 2018 and the neighbours had to pay €1000 in damages. Maurice’s story and his (natural) death, aged six, this year even reached the pages of the New York Times.
But not all cockerels end up victorious. The owner of Coco, in L’Oise department, was forced to pay €600 to his new neighbour, an air hostess who worked unusual hours and who said Coco’s crowing prevented her from sleeping. Coco was exiled to avoid his owner paying a further €50 a day. The owner said: “It’s like people going to the beach and complaining about the gulls. If you don’t like Nature, don’t come and live in the country.”
Smells are a problem too. Nicolas Bardy, a cattle farmer in Lacapelle-Viescamp in Cantal, was recently ordered to pay €5000 in damages to a retired couple from the industrial city of Saint-Etienne. They had bought a house across the road from his farm in 2001. Their complaints – about the smell of M. Bardy’s cows, their manure and his fermenting hay – started in 2006. M. Bardy even invested €120,000 in a new cowshed designed to limit smells, but to no avail. “Smells are part and parcel of the countryside,” he was reported saying. He has so far raised €13,000 through an online crowdfunding platform to cover his legal costs of €10,000.
The inhabitants of Saint-Andre-de-Valborgne in the Gard put up a sign at the entrance to their village not long ago:
“Attention: French village. You come in at your own risk… Here we have bells which sound regularly, cockerels which sing very early, herds of animals which live nearby, some of whom have bells round their necks, farmers who work to give you food. If you can’t put up with this, you are not in the right place.”
A village in northern France – Muhlbach-sur-Munster – followed suit in October this year with a longer (and ruder) sign.
What explains this behaviour of French immigrants in the countryside? I’ve come across similar attitudes in Britain but not to the same extent. I expect André would have said it was because French city-dwellers are selfish individualists. He viewed the country people of his birthplace to be more communitarian than the city folk whose post he had delivered for decades. They still, he would tell me over the garden fence, look out for each other, share tools, pay for services in kind, donate or barter surplus produce. And give helpful advice to incomers like me. My own experience backs this up.
André is still alive. He is a widower and lives in a retirement home a few kilometres upriver from our village. I hate to think what his beloved garden looks like outside his empty house in Brive. The pandemic has stopped me seeing him this year. I hope he’ll still be around in 2021 to tell me why my leeks are not growing or why my pears are shrivelling. I won’t tell him about the felling of a line of lovely poplar trees in the meadow opposite by our Parisian neighbours. According to our ex-mayor they found the trees interfered with their view of the cliffs on the other side of the valley.
[i] Second-home ownership in the UK has shot up in the last twenty years, as Buy-to-Let has become so popular. But the number of people who have a second home in the countryside has remained fairly stable; the latest figure I could find was 2.8% of those living in England and Wales.
[ii] Three English-language reports I read, including the one on the BBC website, had M. Verney’s petition saying “the tweet of Turtle Doves”. Clearly townies all three. If you need an explanation, you’re one too.