Friendships in rural areas

I had a very pleasant lunch with my friends Charles and Pierre (fellow guest was Pierre Paolichi).  We got to talking about who were our friends in Bréau and the local area and agreed that what we have is a lot of friendly acquaintances but only a small number of friends with whom one can have the sort of discussion that we had been having over lunch.

These friends tend to be – with some exceptions – non-Cévenols.  Charles listed half a dozen friends we have in common who are mainly (like him) originally Parisians.  I would add that this is perhaps why I also have so many foreign (mainly anglophone) friends: not only because we have a common culture and language, but also because we are able to talk about politics, literature or life from a similar perspective.

I suppose this is the downside to living in a remote, rural area rather than in a city. But the upside is that – trying not to sound patronising – although conversation with locals may be limited to the weather, health, or local gossip, this is a friendly place to be and I enjoy these many daily contacts.  Where in a city could one go down to the supermarket or market and bump into several friends or acquaintances as well as engaging in discussions with shopkeepers and traders?

It is also a symptom of age that it is no longer so easy to make new friends.  So with one or two exceptions my close friends are still those that I have gathered earlier, in the course of my life.


Fête de la musique

France does a great job of celebrating the joys of music every midsummer day, Le Vigan in particular.

I went to listen to my friend Sylvia, who sang with her usual flair. I also heard my old choir, Rinascenza.  Reduced in numbers but still good.


Post election trauma

Our local voting station in Serres
Our local voting station in Serres

Four days on from the European elections and all my friends here are in acute depression over the results in France.  The size of the Front National (FN) vote took people by surprise, and what hurt was that the local results reflected the national trends.

Many have waxed lyrical, bitter and angry against these results, for example, in the Huffington Post:

Je me suis donc réveillée avec une colère dirigée non plus vers nos partis politiques, mais vers ceux qui ont déposé un bulletin FN dans les urnes. Comment, aujourd’hui, en tant que citoyen du pays des Droits de l’homme, pays des Lumières, pays de Montesquieu a-t-on pu en arriver là ? Comment peut-on voter pour un parti dont l’ancien Président a dit que “les camps de concentrations ne sont qu’un détail de la seconde guerre mondiale.

Yes, I am  despairing that people can be racist, blindly anti- immigrants and can vote so stupidly.

Le Monde presented a good breakdown of the election results.

This makes for grim reading.  We are part of the South West, which has nine seats in the European Parliament.  Historically a stronghold of the Socialists, the Front National were well out in front, with 24.71% of the votes and therefore three MEPs. The UMP and Union de la Gauche (Socialists etc) trailed with 18 and 15% respectively, and two MEPs each, while the Greens and Modem (French equivalent of the Liberals) each get one MEP.  Things are complicated by the low turnout and the presence of 27 parties or alliances!  But it is enough to make you despair.

The results from our two nearest cities, Nimes and Montpellier don’t make for good reading. Nimes has been in the hands of the right for some time now, but the Front National and the UMP together captured 50% of the votes!  Montpellier is marginally better, with the FN getting 18% of the votes, just ahead of the Greens and Socialists – but that is in a city with a Socialist council.

Bréau’s results are as idiosyncratic as you might expect from this area and given that only 189 out of 363 people on the electroal roll voted (excluding the ‘blancs’) one hopes that not too much can be made of it.  Nevertheless, to know that 29 people votes for the FN is depressing.  The high returns for the Greens and the Front de Gauche (extreme left) are not surprising, but they have eaten right into the socialist share.  The high green result might also be affected by the fact that José Bové is local and the strong anti-fracking movement here.

Breau 189 votes cast:

  • 48  Verts (Greens – José Bové)
  • 34  Front de Gauche (extreme left – Mélenchon)
  • 30  Union de la Gauche (Socialists etc)
  • 29  Front National
  • 17  UMP

The only bright note – if like me you happen to be somewhere on the Left – is that the UMP is currently imploding, following its election expenses scandal.  But the Parti Socialiste – and François Hollande?  Oh la la.  What a nightmare.  This social democrat rather than socialist has allowed the party to drift rightwards, towards the centre of the political spectrum – a no-man’s land.  Despite his brave words two years ago, the tax system is in a mess, he is succumbing to spending cuts rather than reform of state expenditure and administration, he seems to talk more to employers than employees, he looks increasingly paralysed when faced with important strategic decisions to make.  The only point to be made in his defence is that – as with Miliband –  I find it totally unfair that the media constantly get at him for lack of charisma.  Do we really want the bling-bling personality of Sarkozy???

Having said all that, I did in fact vote for the PS, but mainly on strategic grounds.  I thought it important not to splinter the left vote into multiple parties if we were to have any hope at all of stopping Juncker becoming president of the EU. As it turns out, the combined number of  PS, FG and ecologist MEPs is still fewer than those for the FN!

If I were in England I would vote Labour, with some confidence that there was a viable alternative Government.  But here…. it is so difficult to know what can be done in France.  No wonder my friends are in despair – for the future of France, and for the future of Europe.

Hot rabbits

We had dinner with our old friends, Christine et Arnard, last night.  Amongst the bits of local gossip which I enjoy picking up (I’m afraid my old news reporter instincts never die) was a comment on a local personnage.  Well I had known he was someone who liked the ladies, to use pedantic old fashioned English, but I had never heard him described as a hot rabbit – un chaud lapin .  Being a proper person….  I have never come across this expression before but I think it is best translated as a randy old devil, particularly as it was followed by the comment that on several occasions he emerged in the village with his trousers barely pulled up.

We also talked about the recent local elections, both for the communes and the communauté of communes.  In the latter, Canayer, the mayor of Molières-Cavaillac was reelected as president by the other mayors, but interestingly this time three mayors voted for Doulcier, the mayor of le Vigan, someone whom Christine and Arnard and I admire.  When I said I was baffled by the failure of Doulcier in these elections, Arnard said it was simply the small village communes ganging up against the big brother.  With the exception of le Vigan (population 3942), Molières (910) and Avèze (1072)  the 22 communes here have populations of less than 500 each, with the smallest having as few as 53.

Wines of Pic St Loup

Peter and I did a very pleasant (but expensive!) tour of Pic St Loup.  I’ve found a good page which describes (in French) the three different ‘terroirs’ of le ‘Grand Pic St Loup’:  We visited two old favourites, Chateau de Lancyre and Mas Gourdou, and one new one, Le Domaine d’Anglas.

First we visited Anglas, which combines being a vineyard with a very picturesque and attractive campsite beside the Hérault – the girls used to canoe past it.  The wines were very pleasant without being outstanding and rather pricy.  This did not stop me buying rather a lot, stocking up for more everyday consumption. The dégustation was seductively pleasant: the woman left us with about eight glasses to sample, on a shaded table looking down towards the river, with the sound of nightingales and other birds providing background music.  This is a big domain, which has been in the same hands for four generations.  We were told that the present owner shifted some 20 or 30 years ago from bulk production to cultivating a better, organic (biologique) range.

Then, a very pleasant drive along the Chemin des verriers, across the Causse de l’Hortus, to the prosperous wine village of Claret, for lunch in the bistro – you can’t do any wine tasting during the French lunchtime of 12-2…  Our afternoon consisted of visiting two vineyeards in le terroir de Pic St Loup – the heart of this wonderful wine area.  This was not our first visit to Lancyre and indeed I still have some bottles in my cave.  But last year we drank a superb 2011 Clos des Combes in a restaurant in le Vigan and had hoped to find more of this vintage.  Sadly they had sold out, so I settled for six bottles of 2012 Vieilles Vignes, which I will try to keep for a year or two, and some bottles of the white wine, La Rouvière. One of the largest domaines in Pic St Loup, this remains

Mas de Gourdou was perhaps the most entertaining visit, thanks to the delightful owner, M. Therond.  We had made an appointment and rang the bell as requested.  Five minutes later an elderly car drew up and a dishevelled elderly man (perhaps my age?!) stepped out.  I said I hoped we had not disturbed him during his lunch, no he said – smiling, he had been taking a siesta. The dégustation took place in a small, intimate cave and was a very jolly affair.  M Therond is of the opinion that wines should be enjoyed rather than fussed over and didn’t seem to be very interested in putting wines down for much time.  He was very informative on the grapes used and I am slowly beginning to distinguish them.  Pic St Loup reds are usually a mixture of Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan.  The whites are usually Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier. He is clearly passionate about growing as perfect grapes as possible and is happy to leave the experts – the oenologue – to advise on the mixing of these grapes.  Normally the grapes are stored separately and then mixed, but one of the wines was produced by mashing the grapes together, so they matured already mixed.

Everything is likely to change now, as M Therond retired – more or less – last year, and his son has taken over.  There are signs of ambitious building going on, with a more impressive cave sadly replacing the little hold in the wall where we had sat.

It was time to move on, as I had a 5pm appointment for xrays.  This experience was one of those splendid positive moments for the French health system.  I got there an hour early, without a prescription, as I had only remembered over the weekend that I needed the x-rays for Wednesday’s appointment with the surgeon.  I was taken straight away, a friendly exchange with the technician operating the cameras who said he fished in our local river, a jolly moment with the radiologue on duty, who admired my surgeon’s work (“nickel” he said), and then a painless session with the secretary who had entered into the computer that I had a prescription so I had nothing to pay (other than the part for my mutuelle, which gets reimbursed).

Tax returns


I get worked up about these every year – and every year vow that from now on I will file the necessary information and enter it on the spreadsheet throughout the year rather than have a last minute panic. Well, it is not quite last-minute as the deadline is over a month away, but I don’t want these hanging over me when there are visitors.   As a foreigner, I have to complete two additional forms over and above the main income tax form 2042.

It is quite scary completing forms written in sometimes incomprehensible French administrative language, though this is much easier if done online. When the online forms were first introduced early in our years here they were absolutely diabolic; now they have improved vastly and are really rather good (though the ‘helpful’ popup hints are still scarily incomprehensible to a foreigner).

I maintain a spreadsheet showing all sources of income, whether remaining in sterling or being transferred to euros. Given that my USS pensions are transferred to my French bank every month and the amount fluctuates according to the exchange rates, I have to enter all the monthly figures into my spreadsheet.

This is the worst bit, as my French bank has an absolutely awful website (unlike Nationwide) and I had to download 12 pdf files separately. The site went down several times while doing this., so it took me all yesterday afternoon.

Then I have to apply an average annual exchange rate to my state pension, which stays in the UK.  (If I were a foreigner living in the UK, the British Government does a handy conversion calculator, but I can’t use this in reverse as the tax year here is January to December.)  I have tracked down an annual rate on the ECB site.  Last year 1€ was worth an average of £0.849.

A big difference between the two countries is the method of paying income tax.  Tax is not deducted at source, so I pay it up front.  As I have opted for ten monthly payments, from January to October, I am currently paying tax for 2013 income, in advance of the tax declaration.  As sterling was down slightly on the previous year my actual income was also down, so I expect to get a tiny rebate back in October.


Concert in Arrigas

I had a wonderful, unscheduled lunch and afternoon with a new friend, Dessa, whom I bumped into in the market.  She has a superbly restored and modernised massive old granite house, high above St Andre de Majencoules, with magnificent, panoramic views to the south, with Camias and Le Rey way down at the bottom of the valley. (No photos as it needed my wide angle lens to do it justice.)  I’ve run out of superlatives for house and view; Poppy was less enthusiastic about her six large dogs, some of whom were being a little territorial.

Just got back in time to recover before going to a concert in Arrigas with Christine Capieu.  I always love the drive to Arrigas, over the hill at Mouzoules, the beautiful descent to Aumessas and then the final winding road to Arrigas, a tiny village just this side of the tunnel which separates the pay viganais with Alzon and the road to Aveyron and the motorway.

Arrigas had a turbulent history during the wars of religion, and its 12th century church was completely destroyed.  Its replacement dates from the 17th century and is quite extraordinary.  I think it is the shock of entering a Catholic church in this predominantly protestant region, but one is hit by the extravagant use of ornamentation and colour, the abundance of statues of course, and some really elegant chandeliers.  The acoustic is good, so this is a popular venue for concerts like yesterday’s.

The first half was an ensemble of recorder players, aided by their teacher plus the Bréau primary school teacher.  It was really not bad for school kids, though not a patch on one I heard a few years back with two outstanding pupils (one the son of my builder) and the teacher.

The second half was a group of four men playing the sackbut (I prefer the French version – sacqueboute), the predecessor to the modern trombone.  The trombone is not my favourite instrument, but the sackbut is definitely a less harsh, acceptable version for me.  But I cannot say that the music, mainly seventeenth century, set me on fire.  Not helped by the fact that I am not a fan of  one of the four musicians who is the director of our local école de musique.  (In particular I don’t think he makes enough effort to promote string playing and in particular to make the case for a cello teacher for le Vigan.)



French politics in a mess

Everybody agrees that the results of the local elections last month were no so much about local politics, but more a statement of disaffection with the Government and in particular François Hollande. Support for the Right did not really increase; rather the Socialist Party did not manage to get its supporters out to vote.

The FN vote was a result of slick, clever political strategy by Marine Le Pen, disaffection with the UMP and the usual tendency to blame others – Europe and immigrants – for things going wrong. I can’t decide whether this support is here to stay or not.  I hope NOT.

The press find it very easy to take a tilt at Hollande, and it is true that he lacks both charisma (thank goodness!) and decisiveness.  What people were really voting about (or not voting) was his management of the economy and failure to halt the rise in unemployment. (None of this applied to little communes like ours, of course, where there was no party politics as such – even though this area has a strong record of being controlled from afar by the Socialist Party.)

But it is also difficult to know what room he has actually had to manoeuvre, given the inherently conservative nature of most French people. They might agree to change in principle but complain when this affects them.  In particular there has been the dilemma of how to sustain the state’s services, in particular education and health, while attempting to reduce debt.  In fact, to Hollande’s credit, much of the debt reduction was initially  achieved by not increasing budgets and by raising taxes (got a lot of negative press for this).  More recently he has been forced to yield to reducing business charges and agreeing to cut government spending instead.

There are some disturbing comparisons that can be made between Hollande and Miliband, both in terms of the dilemma of pushing for left wing policies but remaining credible with banks and businessman, and the fact that neither man sets the electorate on fire.

Hollande’s cabinet reshuffle is strange.  I’m glad Royal is back.  But the  really interesting appointments are Manuel Valls as Prime Minister and Arnaud Montebourg as minister for economics (industry and economic policy) and Sapin as minister of finance. I don’t know much about Valls other than he seems to be on the right wing of the Socialist Party (referred to by the British Press as the French equivalent of a Blairite).  He has made alarming noises about immigration, which makes him unpopular with the left but perhaps reassures non-Socialist voters.

Montebourg was a candidate for the Presidency and  the impression I gained then was of someone very much on the left, but personally ambitious and with a tendency to be abrasive. He has been outspoken in the past about globalisation and favours a keynesian growth strategy for dealing with the budget deficit. Sapin is apparently  on the right, social democrat wing of the party and therefore more likely to go for austerity rather than growth.

So it remains to be seen whether this is a clever balancing act between ‘safe’ politicians to reassure the electorate and Montebourg to help him retain some semblance of socialist programme, or whether this is a last desperate attempt to govern which will fall apart.

First meeting of our local council

Just been to the first meeting of our local council, following last week’s elections. No surprises in the election of mayor and his three deputies, nor in the divvying up of all the various committees.

Alain Durand, outgoing maire, opens the proceedings
Under the watchful eye of Marianne, representing the Republic of France
Alain Durand re-elected maire.
Yves Martin, as the most senior councillor, puts on the tricolour sash
Yves turn to get the sash, when re-elected first deputy
Pierre Pialot re-elected second deputy
Serge Recolin, third of the three deputy maires
Serge Recolin, third of the three deputy maires.
Gave a very correct speech, thanking fellow councillors for electing him.

When the session was opened to the public, Margaret said she regretted the absence of women amongst the office bearers. She was right, of course, but it did not strike many chords amongst those present.  To note that of the 11 councillors, four are women, and only three are not from local families. One wonders how much this represents the composition of the commune.

[Thierry: d’autres photos]

French local elections

Today’s results of the first round of local elections make predictable but very depressing reading.  The Socialists have taken a hammering and the Front National has made horrible advances, including gaining control of towns like Beziers (albeit in a coalition with the UMP).  In Nimes, our nearest big town or city, the right won half the votes, and the FN a quarter, beating the socialists into third place.

The Press is blaming it all on Hollande, but I don’t think it is as simple as that.  It is true he lacks charisma and decisiveness (on the issues that matter – though scarily proactive in Africa), but really this is a statement about economic malaise, blaming problems on immigrants, a protest against unemployment, a disaffection with traditional party politics, mistrust in the EU.  An abnormally low poll also helped the far Right.

Is this a temporary protest vote or an alarming long-term trend?  I don’t know.  It is bad enough knowing there are so many racists and people prepared to blame immigrants for all their ills.  It makes you despair of democracy.

In the small, local country communes like ours the situation is quite different and almost farcical.  In small communes you don’t vote for a list, but for individuals, who may or may not ben on the same list and these are invariably non-party, at least in theory.

In Bréau there was just one list of eleven candidates.  And then Christine Capieu (with whom I play music) put herself up as an individual, alternative.  Pretty predictably the eleven ‘official’ candidates won, although with a surprising number not getting all the votes (you have the right to cross out names) and Christine got a respectable 75 votes.

breau-electionsBecause the 11 candidates got over half the votes cast, no second round election is needed.  Unlike Paris, where things are looking very tight for the socialists, who did not come top in the first round.  Their contender would be the first woman mayor for Paris.  Fingers crossed.

The only bright note locally, is that Doulcier (liste divers), the excellent mayor of le Vigan, was returned with a resounding 60% of the vote , the Liste Divers Gauche got 24% and the Liste Divers Droit a paltry 17%. It would be wonderful if he could now prise back the job of President of Le Pays Viganais (the community of regional communes, which increasingly has the real power) from the mayor of Molières.

So, short term, will Hollande survive?  Long term, when will the French finally have the courage to completely reform their system of local government, still based on the communes, in place since 1792?