SOUSCEYRAC, France (Reuters) - The first thing a visitor to this rural French village sees upon entering town are road signs pointing the way out.
The sprawling parking lot that is Sousceyrac’s main square is mostly empty on a weekday afternoon. The tourist information office, post office and bull semen cooperative are closed, and the rumble of hay and lumber trucks passing through town without stopping adds to the air of isolation.
The economic handicaps plaguing this community of 930 people on the foothills of the southern Massif Central are many. Mobile phone service is spotty, the hospital is an hour’s drive away, the butcher and the bank are gone. Even the pizza lady, Paulette, is throwing in the towel.
For decades, France has fretted about its “banlieues” - the racially mixed population belts around its major cities which, for many, became synonymous with delinquency and deprivation.
But while 42 billion euros ($57 billion) has been pumped over the past decade into cities and suburbs for social housing and other initiatives aimed at appeasing discontent, country-dwellers say some rural areas have been relegated to second-tier status, with a growing lack of essential public services.
“It’s not a gap, it’s a schism! Here in Sousceyrac I can’t even receive a text message. We’re behind on everything here,” rails local man Fabien Faure. “How do you get people to come here if even the phone doesn’t work? Guess what? You won‘t.”
Rural discontent is growing, as violent protests in Brittany have shown. And though a sluggish economy gives him little room to salve country folks’ gripes with state largesse, President Francois Hollande can ill afford to scorn France’s substantial rural vote as his approval ratings hit record lows.
The rural blight clashes with images of sunlit peasant idyll that draw summer tourists by the million and which remain central to the earthy self-image of a nation whose forebears mostly quit the land for the towns generations ago. But whether governments in Paris can reverse the decline is far from clear.
Just outside Sousceyrac, where rich pasture land on rolling granite hills has sustained generations, livestock farmer Maurice Labrousse said rural dwellers feel abandoned.
“It makes me scared. I feel like life in the countryside is over,” said Labrousse, who has so far survived a wave of farm closures. Since 2000 a third of farms have disappeared from the Lot department where Sousceyrac lies, either sold to larger entities or now left fallow.
“We’re not forgotten when it comes to taxes, but we are for services. We’re good enough to pay for road works, but not to have basic services,” he said. “Better to live in the city. It’s a shame and I‘m against it but that’s the way it is.”
With more territory than any other European Union state, France is nearly twice the size of the continent’s economic power Germany with a population 20 percent smaller, creating costly problems for the distribution of public services. By an EU measure, France has double the proportion of people living in the countryside than Germany and 10 times that of Britain.
But urban dwellers - 78 percent of the population living on 22 percent of the land - are better rewarded than their rural counterparts. Rural mayors note that a special state grant to localities, worth nearly 7 billion euros last year, provides 64 euros per head in the country, half what city dwellers receive.
“Rural areas always come up short in the balance,” said Cedric Szabo, director of the French Rural Mayors Association.
Successive governments, mindful of riots and tensions in the suburbs surrounding prosperous cities, have struggled to address the latest chapter in the long decline of rural France.
Tapping into the discontent, far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen did a “Tour de France of the Forgotten” to rural zones earlier this year that passed through the Lot.
A 2009 report on rural poverty for the conservative government that preceded Hollande’s Socialists said the limited attention given to poor healthcare and transport access, housing and jobs resulted in entrenched problems.
Hopes that the creation that year of a minister for rural areas might bring improvements were dashed when the post was scrapped again the following year.
For Sousceyrac mayor Francis Laborie, the goal is to “fight to make sure we’re less forgotten”.
“In France who are we governed by? We’re governed by city people,” he said. “You can see that country folk come second.”
Worrying rural mayors is a local government reorganization that will halve the number of the lowest level authorities, the communes, from the current 36,682 - a figure that accounts for 40 percent of all the municipal entities in the EU.
Mayors say that mergers will mean they will no longer be able to steward the futures of their towns, their authority over roads and schools going to out-of-town officials.
“We’re going to be eaten up by the big communities,” said Laborie. “It’s going to accentuate the feeling of isolation.”
The government says shaking up a system little changed since Napoleon will help spread resources more evenly and do away with costly duplication of effort among local officials who sometimes provide services to barely a few hundred people.
Sousceyrac is relatively lucky - it still has a bakery, two schools, a few cafes and even a Michelin-starred restaurant. Worse hit are northern areas where industrial decline and population exodus have left land derelict and towns gutted.
But put aside Sousceyrac’s clean air and gentle landscape, and bitter realities remain. One in two jobs are in public services, the largest employer is a retirement home since a textile factory shut in 2008, and the population is steadily declining. It is now less than half what it was a century ago.
“It’s the beginning of the end for Sousceyrac,” said Pascal Deleris, an out-of-work mechanic, who expects more businesses to shut and friends to leave town. “It’s not what it was.”
National nostalgia for the soil that made France rich and powerful throughout history remains strong. The annual Paris farm fair is a fixture in the calendar for politicians keen to burnish their rural credentials by posing beside a long-lashed dairy cow or sampling farmhouse cheeses and charcuterie.
But to many in the country, that is just for show.
“For 30 years I’ve heard the politicians say rural life is important, we can’t let it disappear, it would be the end of France,” said Jacques Andurand, mayor of nearby Aynac. “I have the feeling, and I‘m not alone, that it’s a load of hot air.”
And yet, for all the problems, the long depopulation of the countryside has reversed in recent years, as people seek refuge from high rents in towns. Between 1999-2007, 9 percent growth in the rural population was double that in urban areas.
A bigger rural vote may tempt politicians to do more.
“Growth ... has to come, first and foremost, from investing in these areas which for too long have been left behind economically,” said Szabo, noting the rise in population.
One problem area remains healthcare. Nearly a fifth of French people live a long way from a general practice doctor and seeing a specialist is even more difficult, creating what a French Senate report this year called a threat to the “equality among citizens” that is a founding tenet of the republic.
While there is no national shortage of doctors, the newly qualified shun rural areas where, for example, it can be hard for working spouses to find jobs, local officials say. As an older generation of family doctors retires, that is a problem.
“It’s over for doctors like us. I‘m among the last,” said Alain Ducoq, 67, of Leyme, southwest of Sousceyrac. “By 2015 there won’t be any more doctors around here.”
Mayors in nearby towns are skeptical of a government plan to tempt young doctors to the countryside by subsidizing their pay for two years. They think isolation and long hours will ultimately take their toll. Access to hospital is also fraught.
The area hit headlines last year when a woman lost her baby en route to a maternity clinic over an hour’s drive away.
THE PHONE DOESN‘T RING
If healthcare is a matter of life and death, poor telecoms service is an economic strain. A lack of high-speed Internet is the biggest handicap for rural areas today, Szabo said.
Internet working and flexible hours create possibilities for urbanites to ply their trades from homes in the country - but not if they find themselves cut off when they get there.
France has issued licenses for 4G mobile phone networks - a new generation technology that provides high-speed Internet on the move - without requiring winning bidders to start building in rural areas first, something Germany has done.
An alternative approach to encouraging firms to build 4G relay stations in the countryside - letting them share costs and radio frequencies among themselves - has not, however, had the hoped-for effect. While French cities are tuning in to 4G, in Sousceyrac even old-fashioned cellphones are a problem.
“I can’t do my work! The phone doesn’t work!” said Jean-Louis Trin, a cattle dealer who echoes a common gripe. Even the gendarmes cannot use cellphones at work, said mayor Laborie.
Such brakes on economic development keep both entrepreneurs and employees at bay. A major regional employer, the Andros jam factory in nearby Biars-sur-Cere, struggles to find executives willing to move with their families to the area, said Laborie.
Social workers say poorer urban families who move to the country for lower rents often get a shock, finding fuelling a car and heating draughty old houses can offset the savings.
And while the area is picturesque enough to draw tourists, seasonal income for local people reliant on them quickly evaporates. “It’s idyllic in the summer but catastrophic in the winter,” said Michel Labrunie of charity Secours Catholique.
Some small towns are finding creative ways to stay vibrant. Aynac purchased the 17th-century chateau in town, re-selling it for what is hoped to be a bed and breakfast to lure tourists.
Nearby Mayrinhac-Lentour bought the last remaining store in town and turned it into a multi-purpose business - inn, bar, restaurant, tobacco shop, bread depot and grocery store.
And many residents of Sousceyrac say despite the handicaps, isolation and frustrations, they wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Trin, the third generation of cattle traders, says he feels “privileged” to live in the countryside, but says its dwellers feel a world apart from France’s city folk.
“People don’t care,” he said. “They’re going to start throwing peanuts to us. Like at the zoo.” ($1 = 0.7360 euros)
Editing by Mark John and Alastair Macdonald