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France's 'Grandpa Boom' Fuels A Surge In RV Sales

France is also seeing its baby-boomer generation reach retirement age. And many new French retirees, with the time and money to spare, are opting to take the RV route. Still, they could still have trouble down the road finding places to park.

RVs in Saumur, France
RVs in Saumur, France
Denis Fainsilber

PARISAs France's baby boomers reach retirement age, many are using their newfound free time to hit the open road – often behind the wheel of a brand-new recreational vehicle (RV). Overall, some 65,000 people, many of them early retirees, cough up the cash each year for a new or used RV.

Over the past 15 years, RV sales have risen steadily in France – from 5,000 units per year to approximately 20,000 currently. In addition, French customers buy approximately 47,000 used RVs per year. For much of that time France was the European leader when it comes to RV sales, although last year Germany reclaimed the top spot.

France saw a sales peak in 2007, when customers snatched up a record 23,600 new RVs. The market dipped quite a bit as a result of the 2008-2009 financial crisis, but is now back on the upswing. "Between January and August, sales of new vehicles rose by 5% and second-hand sales by 3%," says Caroline Nagiel, secretary general of France's Leisure Vehicles Union. Nagiel expects 2011 sales to end up in the 18,500-19,000 range, depending on how many orders are secured during this week's Leisure Vehicles Trade Show, which is being held outside of Paris.

An estimated 600,000 RVs are already travelling Europe's roads. France alone has about 230,000 such vehicles. Industry professionals are confident the market will continue to grow in the coming years thanks to the aging population of baby boomers – or "papy-boomers' (grandpa-boomers), as they've been dubbed in France.

"The market will keep growing, just like the number of seniors," says Francois Feuillet, the head of Trigano, the country's leading RV brand. Trigano accounts for 25%-30% of RV sales in France. In Europe as a whole, the company enjoys a 20% market share, ahead of rival brands Pilot and Rapido.

Most RV customers are men in their mid-50s who travel with their wives and use their RVs "intensively," according to Feuillet. On average, they take 17 trips per year and spend 77 nights in their RVs. "For them, vacation no longer means anything, because very few of our costumers still work. Those who do, tend to rent RVs rather than buy them," says Feuillet.

Deep pockets

Besides having enough free time to really take advantage of their vehicles, RV customers must also have a fair amount of money to spend. A fully equipped RV (with a kitchen, bed and bathroom) can easily run in the 50,000-euro range. "With an RV, you usually spend 23 hours a day parked, so the inside is more important than its driving qualities," says Feuillet.

RV makers, which tend to be family-owned businesses, buy the frames and engines from carmakers (Trigano buys from Fiat and Ford) and then assemble the end product in their factories. Although Trigano only has three sizes of frames, it still offers 11 different brands. Examples include Chausson, Karmann, Challenger and Autostar. "It's a bit like building individual houses," says Feuillet. "There are multiple and very different needs, that's why I keep them."

The industry is facing one major problem: not happy with seeing their public parking spaces filled with these bulky vehicles, some towns are trying to prohibit RVs from their lots. "These local decisions are illegal. The industry won several court cases against the cities of Nice, Cannes, La Baule and Arcachon," says Feuillet. In the court of popular opinion, however, the jury is still out.

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In Northern Kenya, Where Climate Change Is Measured In Starving Children

The worst drought in 40 years, which has deepened from the effects of climate change, is hitting the young the hardest around the Horn of Africa. A close-up look at the victims, and attempts to save lives and limit lasting effects on an already fragile region in Kenya.

Photo of five mothers holding their malnourished children

At feeding time, nurses and aides encourage mothers to socialize their children and stimulate them to eat.

Georgina Gustin

KAKUMA — The words "Stabilization Ward" are painted in uneven black letters above the entrance, but everyone in this massive refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, calls it ya maziwa: The place of milk.

Rescue workers and doctors, mothers and fathers, have carried hundreds of starving children through the doors of this one-room hospital wing, which is sometimes so crowded that babies and toddlers have to share beds. A pediatric unit is only a few steps away, but malnourished children don’t go there. They need special care, and even that doesn’t always save them.

In an office of the International Rescue Committee nearby, Vincent Opinya sits behind a desk with figures on dry-erase boards and a map of the camp on the walls around him. “We’ve lost 45 children this year due to malnutrition,” he says, juggling emergencies, phone calls, and texts. “We’re seeing a significant increase in malnutrition cases as a result of the drought — the worst we’ve faced in 40 years.”

From January to June, the ward experienced an 800 percent rise in admissions of children under 5 who needed treatment for malnourishment — a surge that aid groups blame mostly on a climate change-fueled drought that has turned the region into a parched barren.

Opinya, the nutrition manager for the IRC here, has had to rattle off these statistics many times, but the reality of the numbers is starting to crack his professional armor. “It’s a very sad situation,” he says, wearily. And he believes it will only get worse. A third year of drought is likely on the way.

More children may die. But millions will survive malnutrition and hunger only to live through a compromised future, researchers say. The longer-term health effects of this drought — weakened immune systems, developmental problems — will persist for a generation or more, with consequences that will cascade into communities and societies for decades.

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