THE area of Aude in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of south central France has many things going for it.
There’s the astonishing medieval splendour of Carcassonne, the vast tracts of vineyards producing very palatable Minervois wines, food of an extraordinary quality for minimal prices, glorious summer weather, the Canal du Midi and fun little seaside resorts.
What’s not to like?
Yet, 30 years ago the area was on its knees, dangerously depopulated with little left to support the local economy. Dozens of picturesque little villages that had been settled since the Roman Empire emptied and fell into disrepair as the younger generations turned their backs on the hard, unrewarding rural life and moved to the cities of Lyon, Toulouse, Marseille and Paris.
Gradually the area recovered, helped in no small part by many British people who snapped up the abandoned village houses for next to nothing for second, and or even first, homes. Builders, craftsmen, restaurants and shops all came back to the area; Carcassonne castle was tarted up, the Canal du Midi was dredged (both acquired World Heritage Site status) and with the added bonus of a few festivals and Ryanair bouncing planes down on a couple of local airstrips, things in sunny old Aude started to look pretty rosy.
Now things have taken a turn for the worse again, particularly in the larger towns, where shops are lying empty and boarded up and decaying houses provide shelter only for pigeons.
The old hands view the situation with weary resignation, having seen it all before. The recession has culled small retailers throughout Europe, so what hope for those servicing the appetites of tourists for idiosyncratic French produce?
Tourism numbers are down and people are spending less, but not catastrophically so. It is not just the recession that is clearing people out of the Aude.
The talk in the towns is that they cannot see where the next generation of shopkeepers and artisans will come from to re-populate the stores. The artisan bakers, delicatessen chocolate makers, cabinet makers, decorative metal fabricators and so forth. Most of them are one person or family operations because it is still next to impossible for a small business to take on an employee in France. So when someone leaves there is nothing left behind.
Running a business has never been easy in France: the paperwork and endless battles with petty officialdom are soul destroying. France is a society run for and by an educated middle class bureaucratic elite.
These are things that Nicholas Sarkozy was supposed to do something about. A right winger, he was elected on the votes of the aspirant working class; the French middle class vote socialist to protect the statist status quo.
Hardcore Sarkozy supporters contend that he did make many important reforms, and that may be so, but they were not really seen or felt on the rues and boulevards. He was seen strutting and posturing in a manner that was considered a bit too much, even by French standards, which is why many of his supporters just did not bother turning out to vote in the presidential election.
No one is under any illusion that Francois Hollande, the new president, is going to make it any easier for French businesses and for kids who want to make something of themselves. His policy for addressing an economy staggering under the burden of debt and a ruinously expensive public sector is tax, borrow and splash out on even more government. He promised to pour cash into the pockets of the civil servants and they gleefully scampered out to vote. They don’t care where the money will come from, just where it will go.
Most French people can see that this is not going to end well.
During the French presidential election Hollande announced that he “dislikes the rich”, so this time round rich French people did not bother to vote. They had seen the writing on the wall and were already in London, house-hunting.
France’s young entrepreneurs are also upping sticks and heading for Britain. It is estimated that there are now 400,000 French citizens living in Britain. The trend began with Parisian yuppies looking for a slice of the banking cake, but now it is the broad sweep of creative types and those who want to start and run a business, even just a small shop or café, that have made London their home. They do not come because they cannot get a job in France, but because they do not want to be slotted into the bureaucratic and rigidly hierarchical French system.
Such are the numbers of French people in the UK now that in the forthcoming French parliamentary elections they will get to elect their own representative in the Paris National Assembly. Technically the National Assembly member will represent French expats throughout Northern Europe, but to all intents and purposes it is the French London constituency. All the candidates for the seat are London based French-British.
The flight from France is expected to continue and increase. These are people that France could do with at home, but as we have seen in Northern Ireland, when you bash business and the wealthy, live off other people’s money and constantly pander to the public sector, the brightest and the best eventually get fed up and get up and go.