Ahead of the high stakes of next week's French presidential election, a visit to 'la France profonde,' deep in the heartland where the country's fate may be decided.
AMBERT — Ten years ago, Antoine de Boismenu left his job as an agriculture lobbyist to embrace his childhood dream, forsaking the endless chatter of the National Assembly in the capital for the infinite silence of the plateaus in the central French region of Auvergne.
After Antoine settled down in the heart of the mountainous landscape of Levradois-Forez, he became a farmer with his own herd of cows. Sometimes he makes them listen to Monteverdi or Mozart inside the barn. "In Paris, I used to talk. Here, I do things."
Still, Antoine has plenty to say. He answers our questions while selling products to his clients and preparing blue-veined fourmes d'Alembert cheese. In a few weeks, Antoine will take his herd uphill for the summer. The high plateaus of the Hautes Chaumes du Forez had been abandoned when agriculture modernized in the 1960s but several farmers are now returning to the site.
It's up to each generation to reconquer the land, says Antoine. The old agricultural model is dead. They need to reinvent themselves using modern tools. "The internet now plays the role of an astounding accelerator. See, thanks to it, I can manage my customer base all alone and directly. If I need to make an advertising flyer, I do it myself. I don't ask anybody anything and I don't owe anybody anything."
Antoine is also a blogger. He's considering a live broadcast of his cows birthing on Periscope. He explains the exhilarating feeling of having taken back control over his future. "Here, a lot more than in Paris, I feel like I'm doing real politics," he says.
His home, at an altitude of 1,400 meters, allows one to see far away, to witness the immensity of the forest and the copper sheen of volcanoes in the background. Taking the narrow, zigzag roads leads to the small city of Ambert. Lost in the middle of the beech and pine trees, the nearby village of Valcivières seems tiny with its 209 souls. Becoming a veritable ghost town is a mathematical reality around here: the number of inhabitants has shrunk over the past century. The school and the post office are gone; only a small bar brings a semblance of life to the center of the village.
The mayor, André Voldoire, has a small saw mill. Twice a day, he drives the school bus for the village's children. Everything is far away: the supermarket, the schools, the doctor, the state. His meager municipal budget — 150,000 euros — is swallowed up for the most part by pothole reparations after harsh winters.
Voldoire says that the French presidential candidates have an interest in the rural world — when they need their votes. As the interview progresses, he speaks more and more openly, always conveying a deep feeling of abandonment. "We are the forgotten," he says.
These are the two faces of France's rural areas, where more than one in five people live: There's the side that's reinventing itself, and the one that's dying out. In the Livradois-Forez, farmers are aging and not many youngsters are willing to take over. The mountain farming business model is in agony. Falling milk prices have brought farmers more insecurity and, in an ongoing silent tragedy, farmers overburdened with debt commit suicide.
The economic crisis has made things worse for the poorest, including for new country-dwellers who were chased out of city centers by gentrification and rising rents. Jobs are hard to find. These populations are also hit by the removal of public services, which has taken the state further away and made these lands appear more remote.
Regular train services in Ambert were abandoned a long time ago and replaced by buses and smaller trains made for a handful of tourists. The last ticket seller is about to lose his job. The hospital's maternity ward was closed down 10 years ago, costing 400 people their jobs.
"For many years, the political power in Paris used to irrigate the region, now it's draining its wealth toward cities," laments André Chassaigne, a Communist Party legislator for the region. As an elected representative, he attacks "the candidates cut off from the rural world, who look on villages with condescension and hidden contempt."
Chassaigne worries about growing despair, the likes of which he hasn't seen in his 40 years in politics. "There's always been some anger in our villages. But we used to be able to accompany it and create hope through political organizations like the Communist Party, or religious organization like the Catholic Agricultural Youth (JAC). Now, the anger keeps people glued to the bottom."
The specter of a victory for Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front party has never been such a threat as it is today in a region where, historically, the conservative rhetoric was always met with little sympathy.
But Chassaigne refuses to be fatalistic. For those who defend the countryside, the current climate could help reinvent local politics in response to the current disconnect. "We have associations, a rich cultural life, dynamic export companies and an abundant imagination," he says.
Ambert, once the cradle of the paper industry, is now home to about 10 family businesses in the cable industry, among them Omerin, the sector's world leader. "Here we enjoy an extraordinary quality of life," the company's chief executive told a business newspaper recently. "Real estate is cheap, the surroundings are magnificent. We struggle a lot more to find employees than to keep them."
Other businesses in Ambert include the sale of rosaries, which are also exported all around the world.
The real challenge to give the rural world a future consists of holding back the exodus and to irrigate the land with young blood and ideas. Benoît Pascal, represents, among others, that future. Aged 26, he launched his startup Sezam when he was still living with his parents in Ambert. He created a connected wristband that allows people to pay in festivals and other big venues. He got the idea when he was helping his father install stages for local festivals.
After his product sparked the interest of tech billionaire Xavier Niel and Marc Simoncini, the founder of dating site Meetic, Benoît moved his startup to the former regional capital Clermont-Ferrand, with an eye on the U.S. and Switzerland, where one of his associates lives. "But I'll always keep a foot in Ambert," he says. "If the company develops the way I want it to, why not set up our R&D service here, in the countryside?"
He appears to be the best ambassador of his land. "We often talk about smart cities but why not develop smart villages?" The young entrepreneur tells us that his wristband idea would allow tourists to take advantage of all the riches the region has to offer including, of course, a tasting of Ambert's prized cheese.