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miercuri, martie 1

As France’s Towns Wither, Fears of a Decline in ‘Frenchness’

Adam Nossiter
Albi, an hour northeast of Toulouse, is among a growing number of French towns encountering commercial decline. Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
ALBI, France — The paint is fading, but the word is still clear: Alimentation, “Groceries.” It seems like a stage prop, grafted above the window of the empty old storefront. Opposite stands a tattoo parlor. Nobody enters or leaves. The street is deserted.
Keep walking, and you’ll find more vacant storefronts, scattered around the old center of this town dominated by its imposing 13th-century brick cathedral, one of France’s undisputed treasures. Tourist shops and chain clothing stores are open, but missing are the groceries, cafes and butcher shops that once bustled with life and for centuries defined small-town France.
Measuring change, and decay, is not easy in France, where beauty is just around the corner and life can seem unchanged over decades. But the decline evident in Albi is replicated in hundreds of other places. France is losing the core of its historic provincial towns — dense hubs of urbanity deep in the countryside where judges judged, Balzac set his novels, prefects issued edicts and citizens shopped for 50 cheeses.
A nearly empty street in Albi. “This phenomenon of the devitalization of the urban centers is worrisome,” a government report said, “as the stores contribute so much to city life and largely fashion it.” Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
In January, I went to Albi while covering the French presidential election. I’ve known the city for nearly 35 years, visiting a handful of times as part of a lifetime’s engagement with France that began at age 4 when my family moved to Paris. My first trip to Albi came in 1982, with my college girlfriend, and I found a bustling, jewel-like city that took its ochre-red color from bricks that had been used since the Middle Ages and echoed the hot, meridional sun. I was captivated.
I returned in January not on the trail of a presidential candidate but to better understand a French paradox just beneath the surface of the campaign: the deep pride felt by the French in what they regard as an unparalleled way of life, always accompanied by anxiety that it is facing extinction.
The campaign is like few before it in France, because of the looming question of whether the far-right candidate, Marine Le Pen, will do the once-unthinkable, and win. She has already pushed the discourse rightward and made a visceral promise to voters: to protect not just France, but Frenchness. Whether the menace is defined as Islam, immigration or globalization, her vow to voters is the same: I am the woman to preserve the French way of life.
The visible decline of so many historic city centers is intertwined with these anxieties. Losing the ancient French provincial capital is another blow to Frenchness tangible evidence of a disappearing way of life that resonates in France in the same way that the hollowing out of main streets did in the United States decades ago. A survey of French towns found that commercial vacancies have almost doubled to 10.4 percent in the past 15 years. As these towns have declined, voters have often turned sharply rightward. Albi is traditionally centrist, but the same conditions of decline and political anxiety are present, too.
Turn a corner in Albi, and you’ll pass the last school inside the historic center, abandoned a few years ago. Down another street is the last toy store, now closed, and around a corner is the last independent grocery store, also shuttered. Walk down the empty, narrow streets on some nights and the silence is so complete that you can hear your footsteps on the stones.
Vacant storefronts in Albi. Adam Nossiter/The New York Times
“If nothing is done, a substantial part of the French soul will perish, taking with it more than half the French population,” the businessman Charles Beigbeder wrote in Le Figaro recently, calling for a “Marshall Plan” for “peripheral France.”

A Way of Life Fades

I arrived in Albi, population 49,000, on a Thursday evening, having driven in from Toulouse, an hour away. At the edge of town, I passed a giant shopping center, Les Portes d’Albi, where the parking lot was black with cars. In the Albi I had known before, people had lived in town above their stores. Centuries of accumulated living were packed inside the tree-shaded boulevards. Shopping was as much about sociability as about buying.
Before arriving, I picked up a government report, an autopsy of many French provincial capitals: Agen, Limoges, Bourges, Arras, Beziers, Auxerre, Vichy, Calais and others. In these old towns, many harder hit than Albi, the interplay of the human-scale architecture, weathered stone and brick, and public life had been one of the crucibles of French history and culture for centuries. Now they were endangered, as even the dry language of the report conveyed that an essential part of French life is disappearing.
“This phenomenon of the devitalization of the urban centers is worrisome,” the government report declared, “as the stores contribute so much to city life and largely fashion it.”
My first appointment was with the town whistle-blower, who had agreed to give me a tour. Florian Jourdain wasn’t exposing local corruption but the decline of the town that was hidden in plain sight. His meticulous blog, picked up by the French press, caused such resentment among Albi’s commercial establishment that last year the merchants’ association staged a demonstration against him in the main square.
Florian Jourdain has documented the decline of the town in his blog. Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
With a degree in history and studies in geography, Mr. Jourdain published an online map, with a skull-and-crossbones marking each vacant store. He discovered that nearly 40 percent of the remaining shops sold clothes, and he suspected that much of the trade was with tourists. Only a single traditional boulangerie, or bakery, remained in Albi’s old core, and not a single free-standing butcher shop.
A Parisian by origin, Mr. Jourdain worked quasi-undercover, and few in town, even among his allies, seemed to know his last name. I met him on a Friday morning in the windswept plaza of the looming Cathédrale Sainte-Cécile, a giant brick fortress built eight centuries ago to awe the region’s restive heretics. As we started on the Rue Mariès, the city’s main commercial street, Mr. Jourdain pulled his hood down over his head to avoid being recognized, as I struggled to mentally repopulate the empty street with the liveliness that had delighted me 35 years before.
“For me, if you are precise, you can’t be attacked,” he said of his work. “It’s a big problem for me that there are no grocery stores in the center of the city. There is no neighborhood cafe.”
Street after street, we took the measure of the town’s fragility. Name tags were missing from buzzers at the doorways of the old buildings. Above them the shutters stayed closed night and day, with estimates that 15 percent of these old houses are vacant.
Mr. Jourdain knew something was amiss soon after arriving from Paris in 2013. “Right away I realized it,” he said. “Just across from us, and right next to us, there were two magnificent buildings, vacant. I thought it was strange. And then I started to see more and more empty stores.”
We came to the Place Lapérouse, named after the great French explorer who was born in Albi in the 18th century. I had a flashback. On a warm afternoon many years before, I sat on a bench here, gazing at the old buildings around me. It had been quiet enough to hear the birds in the centenarian plane trees shading the square.
Now, it was a frigid intersection combined with a soulless pedestrian plaza. Cars whizzed past.
We moved on, passing two storefronts with “total liquidation” written across them. The sense I had many years before, of a dense urban space that was a living, breathing organism, was gone.
“Look, here, this used to be a cafe,” he said, pointing to a woman’s clothing store where the faint remains of a traditional cafe awning were still visible.
Mr. Jourdain spoke with the fervor of a disappointed suitor. He had moved to Albi to embrace its beauty and to escape the clamor of Paris but instead found a creeping listlessness. He saw his role as waking up his fellow citizens. “The risk is great for our beautiful episcopal city,” he wrote in his blog.
We moved on to the empty Rue de la Croix Blanche. Again, we were the only walkers, passing a line of closed stores. On the Rue Puech Bérenguier we passed the last grocery store. On the Rue Peyrolière we saw the abandoned elementary school, closed in 2013, a classic Third Republic building where generations of Albigeois were educated. On the wall inside, a children’s drawing from the last class was still visible.
Some streets in Albi stay empty much of the day. “There are whole buildings where there isn’t a soul,” Mr. Jourdain said. Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
“The cries of children will resound no longer,” the local paper, La Dépêche du Midi, wrote when the school closed.
In former days, the covered market, the Marché Couvert, would have been a hub of life and commerce. No more. “You feel as though time has been suspended,” Mr. Jourdain said.
Hours had passed on a sunny Friday in the center of town, yet on some streets we saw almost no one. “You see clearly that we are on a street that is dying,” Mr. Jourdain said on Rue Emile Grand as we concluded our tour. “There are whole buildings where there isn’t a soul.”
I called City Hall for a meeting with the mayor, a member of France’s center-right party, but was met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm from her spokeswoman. I was put off with the promise of a phone call the following week, and when I finally reached the mayor, Stéphanie Guiraud-Chaumeil, she argued that urban “devitalization” has had a “relatively moderate impact.” She also angrily condemned Mr. Jourdain.
“He is an extraterrestrial,” she said, “who came here to get talked about.”
The head of the merchants’ association, who had led the demonstration against Mr. Jourdain, was equally elusive. He was not to be found at the anonymous basement supermarket he runs beneath the Marché Couvert. Nobody knew when he would show up or how to reach him, and the association’s office in the center of town had long since closed.

Leaving City Centers Behind

The next morning was a Saturday, the busiest shopping day of the week, with shops promising sales and customers inside the clothing stores. There was a hint of the liveliness I had remembered from many years before, but these were weekend shoppers, many from out of town.
I went to see Fabien Lacoste, a Socialist city councilman, in the shadow of the cathedral. As on most Saturdays, he was at work, flipping crepes at his outdoor food stand.
To him, Albi’s fate was a cultural misfortune. City leaders had poured money into a high-concept modernistic new culture center at the town’s edge. And the shopping mall had been built. Large grocery chains, called hypermarkets, had also been constructed outside the city, with free parking. It is not that Albi no longer had commerce, or activity. But the essence of the ancient city was being lost.
The rise of the shopping centers traced the sharp rise in living standards brought on by what the French call the Trentes Glorieuses, the 30 glorious years from 1945 to 1975. Growth was around 4 percent; purchasing power of the average worker’s salary rose 170 percent. The boost to consumer demand could not be met by the old center-city structure of small shops, small purchases. Malls and strip centers were born.
A shopping center outside Albi. France has the highest density of malls in Europe. Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
Today, France has the highest density of such retail space in all of Europe, even as vacancies in 190 historic town centers have gone to 10.4 percent in 2015 from 6.1 percent in 2001, according to the government report. Thus, the French paradox: a newly consumerist society that had stripped France of its “soul” — made even worse, now, by the fact that economic growth has collapsed.
“There’s no bar, no cafe. We’re in the southwest, for heaven’s sake. It’s a scandal,” said Mr. Lacoste, serving up crepes to his customers. “We’ve lost that conviviality that was our signature. Before, each little neighborhood had its own center, with its own cafe. All that has disappeared.”
“What I deplore is this devitalization,” Mr. Lacoste added. “You won’t be doing your shopping here.”
By Sunday, Albi had reverted to its weekday torpor. I went for my evening run along the green Tarn river and passed a half-dozen people at most. In the twilight the town felt abandoned.
I finally caught up with the head of the merchants’ association just as he was leaving his supermarket. He did not seem pleased to see me and was even less pleased with Mr. Jourdain. “There are town centers where the situation is much more complicated,” he said.
Albi risks becoming a town appealing only to tourists. “Twenty years ago, the center of town was still animated,” said Eric Lamarre, who closed Albi’s last toy store last year. “People really came to town to buy. There were loads of lovely things. It buzzed with people.” Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times
My last interview before leaving town was with Eric Lamarre. Last year, he closed Albi’s last toy store. “Twenty years ago, the center of town was still animated,” he said. “People really came to town to buy. There were loads of lovely things. It buzzed with people.”
The big shopping center opened in 2009, and his business declined until the end, when he was losing 50,000 euros (about $53,000) a year.
“It’s a political problem,” he said. “These towns have been had. They always say yes to the shopping center developers.”
Albi, he said, “is still a magnificent city — for the tourists.”

Northpamet New York 5 hours ago

Great article. The same thing happened in the USA. That's why I don't set foot in Wal-Mart, which sucks the life out of towns and puts former businesspeople on horrible wages without benefits. It's a cancer, fed by people who shop there to save $3 on a T-shirt. This is not prosperity. It is impoverishment, not just of character, but of people whose businesses are gone. (PS: Whatever you do, don't put in brick-paved pedestrian streets! That's an admission of death for a town.)

reader Chicago, IL 4 hours ago

The irony is that no one forced anyone to patronize these peripheral stores to the detriment of the central ones. It was a choice. It was a choice to put them there, yes, and it was also a choice to use them. They offer lower prices, but there is another cost as well. The same thing has happened in many places in the US, but there has also been a movement to reverse the trend in some places. I do think it's possible to change this, but you have to have a group of citizens that is committed to doing so. Articulating the loss is a step in the right direction, I think. I would just like to note also that in the US, many of the communities most trying to change this process and to engage with local businesses, farmers markets, etc, are progressive ones. The idea that only the right wing wants to preserve the beauty of some of our traditions - especially the ones worth keeping - is incorrect.

Frank Viviano Barga, Italy 5 hours ago

Very well done and profoundly sad. What makes it even sadder, in a broad sense, is that the same story is unfolding all over the traditional landscape of Europe. In Italy, there are towns and small cities like Albi at every turn, especially but not uniquely in the south. Travel to once-vital regional centers in Britain and the signs of rapid decline are equally palpable. By contrast, Rome, Paris and greater London are expanding ever further into what were once rural hinterlands. There are compelling economic and social explanations for this trend. But as Adam Nossiter observes, none of them measures the incalculable damage that desertion inflicts on a nation's soul and identity.

Dylan Janus Chicago 4 hours ago

Even France, champion of culture, is not impervious to the corrosive forces of corporate dominance and globalization that have hollowed out local economies. This is the way of commerce for nearly all of us here in the USA: big malls, big cars, big parking lots, even bigger people, all stocking up on goods made in slave conditions on the other side of the planet. I'm don't know how to fix any of this, but I suspect it will not end well. This reminds me, I need to go to Costco after work...

K. Herman Los Angeles 5 hours ago

I lived in Limoges in the late '90s and this trend was beginning there. The city center, a beautiful jumble of half-timber buildings, was emptying out while the shopping centers on the periphery attracted residents with convenience and lower prices. There was a melancholy to it and a sense of loss, which even I, a very young American, felt. But what the French have to ask themselves, as we are doing in America, is whether you can go back again, or whether facing an evolving country and culture with clarity and pragmatism is what's called for. The idea that "Frenchness," like American greatness, was static over centuries (or decades, for us) until relatively recently is a fallacy, obviously, and at any rate somehow setting back the clock to a "better" time is impossible. Hopefully, the French won't make the same mistake we made here.

rexl phoenix, az. 5 hours ago

This is extremely sad, where is the world going, are we all staying home to look at our "screens". I have heard similar stories from all over the world.

Eli Tiny Town, Idaho 4 hours ago

You could write this story about any number of small towns in the Midwest or The South.

For anybody that doesnt understand why so many people voted for Trump, it's a reaction against this same thing.

I drove cross country a year ago and there were a lot of places that had beautiful main streets completely devoid of life and activity. There'd be one maybe two fast food joints that kinda limped along, a gas station that seemed to double as a sorta groceries and sunderies store and that was about it.

People here in rural America are clamering to be heard that their towns are dying and that nobody seems to care.

4 hours ago

This isn't so much a story about "Frenchness" as it is about the effects of the economics of global trade on every town in the world.

What's the alternative in the face of the omnipresence of multi-national companies that offer cheap products that, ultimately, all local consumers, French or any other nationality, flock to in droves.

I suppose a government could rip up free trade agreements, and ban IKEA, Starbucks, McDonalds, H&M from opening stores, and risk economic retaliation from other countries, all in order to force its citizens to buy from locally owned neighborhood shops.

But the cost to local consumers would be so high that it'd quickly outpace the diminishing purchasing power of local citizens, not to speak of the effect on the GNP caused by closed borders.

The French love to mock cheap Made-in-China products and laud the superiority of locally made French products, but *somebody* in France is supporting this annual multi-billion euro market of these cheap imports. Hmmm, who could it possibly be in France???

Patrician New York 4 hours ago

The problem, decline in 'Frenchness', is a real one. It's also easy for demagogues like Marine LePen to capitalize on. But, when I read the situation specific to Albi (or other provincial capitals), to understand cause and effect, I don't buy what LePen is selling.

How is this situation caused by immigrants, or Muslims? As I understand from the article, what's happening is a confluence of two forces: first is that large scale hyperstores/shopping centers are taking market share away from small family owned/mom and pop stores. The driver for that is scale leads to lower prices. We've seen that at work in America for decades: Barnes and Noble (now facing Tech competition) driving out neighborhood book stores, Walmart doing the same to grocery stores. This often leads to decline in urban centers, which has lately for many American cities reverted due to urbanization.

The other factor seems to be a decline in economic growth and activity impacting salary and wage growth. I don't know, from the article, if there's also a migration towards larger cities creating a vicious cycle of decline.

So, yes. There may be some immigrant stores selling stuff not traditionally French, but that's not what contributing to the decline.

Any electorate must always ask of their politicians: HOW? How will you fix the problem? naming the problem is the easy part. Confusing cause and effect and putting the blame wrongly will just lead to suboptimal outcomes.

France: learn from our stupidity.

ake Texas 2 hours ago

So France is about 25 years behind the United States in the hollowing out of it's small city and town centers?
In about 10 years many places like Albi will start to slowly come back to life as younger people, lured by cheap rents and tiring of the big city life, move into these town centers and open up cafes, etc.
It is happening to many places in the USA - look no further than Detroit now Portland in the 90's, NYC in the 1980s ,etc.
This is part of the urban cycle.

Peter C New York 3 hours ago

What I find most disappointing in the information this article (and the photos) provide, is the unwillingness of town representatives to speak with the journalist and the willingness to blame the "whistle blower." This too is an example of Frenchness: deny the problem and point at the next guy. Such a beautiful old city demands a young eye and some entrepreneurial spirit, as well as government support in those areas. If rent is cheap in those beautiful buildings, then it is time to open up some night spots, to open bars and clubs, to open fashionable food shops and restaurants. "If you build it they will come." I believe that the young people of France and of all the industrialized nations whose souls are being ripped out by multinational conglomerates are clear eyed and aren't happy about corporate take overs of their histories, towns, patrimoine. They are seeking soul and heart and authenticity but don't know where to turn. This situation mustn't be seen solely as a negative, it is an opportunity to rebuild. I am just wondering why there is no "underground" culture that sees that its time has come.

Dan Morgan Florida 5 hours ago

France successfully combatted these outside of center malls and groceries for years until the unrelenting march of commerce overran the powers that be. This happened in most of America years ago now -- so much so that we don't even believe that our towns and small cities EVER had vibrant life. That's not the case.

In the USA the trap was cheap land and nearby competition. In France it's preservationism and the fact that most towns set up so-called industrial zones where more people work, and then later live. These zones were set up to prevent the town centers from becoming industrialized and the architecture destroyed. Try to preserve a town to this extent and it becomes a museum without daily life . . . !

Ruben Kincaid Brooklyn, NY 2 hours ago

Go to any small city on the planet that has a big-box store on the outskirts, and you will find something similar happening to its center. Wal-Mart destroyed many American towns over the past few decades. This is more about money than being French.

Bill New Zealand 3 hours ago

This is very sad, but I think we need to distinguish between globalization per se and corporate capitalism. Certainly free-trade agreements that privilege mega-corporations are wreaking havoc, but simply putting up trade barriers will also make it difficult for small businesses to sell abroad.

Global trade means Americans can get single malt Scotch. It means in turn that micro-distilleries in the US can sell their wares in boutique shops globally. It means access to French cheese, or Japanese anime. or fair trade coffee. As someone living in New Zealand, it means I can buy ski boots--since there are no local manufacturers--and in fact I did from a locally owned shop.

There is no reason small shops could not stock these items in town--along with, I might add, the products produced in France that will be sold anyway in those large malls.

What throws a huge wrench in the system are corporate economies of scale. Those small shops cannot compete because giant corporations--many domestic--have made it difficult for small businesses. It was not global trade that destroyed the independent bookstore in the US. It was Amazon and Borders.

I'd love to see new model of global trade that levels the field for small businesses.

Jean-Louis Lonne Belves France 4 hours ago

So true; I live near Castillon la Bataille. There is a LeClerc ( like a small Walmart)just outside of town. It cleaned out the small stores with cheap stuff, bad bread, bad meat, old veggies,- not much money in these items. The town is owned by drug dealers, pharmacies, and eye glasses stores , all profit items.

Nate CA 2 hours ago

I have seen so many of these “doomsday” articles about France and especially French Cuisine over the last few years.

If you were to believe all these articles you would think France has become an abandoned hollow shell, eating nothing but fast food burgers and buying nothing but pre-packaged convenience foods.

I finally had to go back last year and see for myself.

I visited over two dozen places, from large cities to tiny villages out in the middle of nowhere. I do not (and cannot) dispute the experience of the author in these specific places, but overall my experience was much, much different

While there are no doubt many towns in France with problems, just as there are many towns in rural America with problems, these examples are only one side of the coin.

It’s like taking Detroit or a small coal town in rural Kentucky and using them as an example of what is happening in the majority of America.

Yes, these problems exist, but they are only part of the truth.

RFC Santa Fe, NM 2 hours ago

It's easy to blame superstores and political neglect for the emptying of traditional French towns but there is also the issue of greatly declining birth rates and the emigration of young people to Paris -- they don't want to stay behind and run the family butcher shop or patisserie, or live in apartments where the toilet is in the courtyard. These changing demographics have been going on for decades. The superstores simply fill a need for residents of multiple nearby towns to buy everything they need at once -- even the French appreciate efficiency. Nostalgia for a city center of tiny shops is nostalgia for a time when women stayed home and spent the day planning and shopping for meals. Perhaps we should "blame" the demise of France's charming towns on feminism? There are obviously many factors at work.

fastfurious the new world 3 hours ago

When I visited my educated cultured politically left friends living in the old charming parts of Spanish cities, including Barcelona, I learned they did all their shopping at the big-box stores and groceries in the burbs.

Because $$$.

You can't argue with that.

It's the end of an era. Those who want everyone to continue to patronize small shops and pay more aren't paying attention. People have less money. Shopping at larger cheaper stores is the result. Heraclitus indeed.

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