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The disappearing world of French village life

The French affection for their little towns is tinged with guilt rooted in neglect

The most charming article I read last autumn was a short piece by Le Monde journalist Pascale Robert-Diard, titled "#ineverylittletown, tender and grave postcard from little France".

A morning presenter at Virgin radio had asked listeners to answer the question "What does one always find #ineverylittletown? The resulting Twitter feed was the social media equivalent of Oliver Goldsmith's 1770 poem The Deserted Village, an ode to moribund rural France. Though Irish readers would understand the phenomenon, the list was quintessentially French.

In every little town one finds similar people. There is “Gérard who can repair anything”, “a girl called Coralie with a lip piercing”, and “lots of people who’re afraid of migrants without ever having seen one”.

Every little French town has a monument to the war dead, and an empty fountain. I thought of "my" French village, Dancevoir, population 250, in the Haute Marne department of eastern France. I visit friends there several times a year.

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The last controversy to wrack Dancevoir was the construction of a fountain on the village square, opposite the chateau owned by local aristocrats. Opponents objected that fountains were a southern tradition. Indeed, the fountain is worthy of a Roman piazza. Its cost, nearly €400,000, was deemed exorbitant, although most of it was paid by the now defunct réserve parliamentaire, a taxpayer funded slush fund that enabled politicians to build monuments to themselves.

I've always seen the fountain dry, but I'm assured that a municipal employee with the title of fontainier turns on the water every Bastille Day. During the controversy, someone poured grass cuttings into the village water tower, depriving Dancevoir of drinking water for an entire Whitsuntide weekend.

Since the mayor died, no one talks any more about the fountain. “Funerals are the only thing that happen,” says my friend Anne-Elisabeth. The school closed three years ago and children now take the bus to Chateauvillain, 12km away. The Twitter feed says that in every little town, “There’s a sign saying ‘Don’t close the school’.”

In every little town

In every little town, there’s a bar-tabac that sells groceries and outdated newspapers. In Dancevoir, it was called Chez Chantal, until Chantal retired. Villagers have a hard time remembering the new name, Couleur Ca’fée. Bad puns are also a characteristic of little French towns.

#Ineverylittletown there’s “a post office that opens on Tuesdays between 3pm and 3.30pm”. When Anne-Elisabeth spent childhood holidays in Dancevoir, the population was twice what it is now. “There were shops for everything. You didn’t need a car.” Anne-Elisabeth’s mother was one of 12 children. A brother became a priest. Two sisters were nuns. A maternal aunt married and settled in Dancevoir, and seven of her eight children still have homes there. We spend a lot of time visiting cousins.

The goal of every 18-year-old is to get his driver's licence and leave

Everyone knows everyone. As the Twitter feed notes, “Your children’s school mistress used to be your mistress”. “The postman never gets the wrong mailbox. He knows he can leave your package with your neighbour”, and “The baker asks after your husband, your children, your dog and your mother-in-law. Sometimes you learn things even you didn’t know about yourself.”

No restaurant

A pizza van visits Dancevoir on Friday and Saturday evenings. The only restaurant closed when its young and cheerful owner died of cancer. A van selling dairy products passes through on Tuesdays, the mobile butcher on Thursdays. In summer months, a vegetable vendor comes once a week from Châtillon-sur-Seine. It’s easier to drive to the Inter-marché in Châteauvillain.

Each time I take the 2½-hour train journey to Chaumont, 30km from Dancevoir, I watch the vallied plains roll by, and remember Shakespeare's reference to "the vasty fields of France". I understand why Charles de Gaulle wanted to settle in nearby Colombey-les-Deux églises.

I sleep better in Dancevoir than anywhere on Earth. A stream murmurs beneath my window. Hooting owls and croaking frogs are the only other sound.

A Parisian friend says she'd be "bored as a dead rat" in a small town. But I love the illusion of slowing time. My hosts and I take long walks through the forest, to the swimming hole at Aubepierre, the bric-a-brac shop in Boudreville, the tomb of Claude Lévi-Strauss in Lignerolles. The destinations are merely a pretext. One feels one has earned one's aperitif and dinner.

The French affection for their little towns and villages is bittersweet, tinged with guilt rooted in neglect, and sadness that this world is disappearing. For as the #Ineverylittletown Twitter feed concludes, “The goal of every 18-year-old is to get his driver’s licence” and leave.