BBC News

The dying art of French adverts painted on walls

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

image copyrightGetty Images

Adverts painted on buildings used to be a common sight in France. But the art of sign-writing is now in decline, and the disappearance of these murals tells a story about a changing country.

Anyone who's spent any time meandering through the quieter parts of France will recognise those lovely fading mural advertisements that you can still see on the sides of houses or, indeed, on any old wall.

You know the type of thing. In cobalt blue and sunflower yellow, but all the colours now attractively washed out - slogans for motor-oil, or chocolate, or once-popular types of alcohol like Suze and Dubonnet.

People go round collecting photos of these peintures publicitaires and posting them online, and I don't blame them - because they are at the same time things of beauty and symbols of a lost, more prosperous, simpler, time.

  • Find us on Facebook

They were made to last, those ads. Just like the painted signs you can just about make out still above old shops in small-town France - Quincaillerie, Cremerie, Droguerie - perhaps with the name of the family who set them up 100 years ago.

image copyrightAlamy

Sign-writing used to be an important skill, and it must have cost a bit to hire an artisan to decorate the front of the establishment. But it must have seemed worth it too. A good sign, painted all neat and properly on a nice beam of wood over the door - that was a statement of confidence in the future. And, as we can see, it worked - many have indeed resisted the ravages of the years.

Contrast that with the sign-writing of today and despair. Today, if a budding shop or bar owner in small-town France wants to announce their presence, it'll be on a cheap strip of garishly coloured plastic inscribed and laminated at the local printers. Or just possibly on a strip of tin. Aesthetically about as sustaining as a slug of ersatz cola.

And I've seen worse. More than once I've seen a recently opened shop, signalled only by a long piece of blackout material above the door with the function scrawled on the cloth in white paint.

image copyrightGetty Images

There's no blame to be attached to any of this. It's merely economics playing itself out. The future of small French towns is grim, the chances of a shop lasting any reasonable length of time are poor, so what is the point of shelling out for fancy decor?

Take a town I know well, Cosne-sur-Loire in the unfashionable Nievre department, south-east of Paris. About 20 years ago, a first layer of supermarkets, garages and do-it-yourself stores sprang up on the periphery.

The old-established shops of the town centre began to suffer. Now a second layer of even bigger stores has sprung up on the outer periphery - toy-shops, clothes shops, sports shops in those huge rectangular structures like children's building blocks.

Business is being sucked in from all around. No-one can possibly compete, especially given the extent of rural poverty here.

Find out more

  • From Our Own Correspondent has insight and analysis from BBC journalists, correspondents and writers from around the world
  • Listen on iPlayer, get the podcast or listen on the BBC World Service or on Radio 4 on Thursdays at 11:00 BST and Saturdays at 11:30 BST

So Cosne, like hundreds of other French towns with romantic names like Nevers and Montargis and Nemours, is emptying out.

It's luckier than most because it still has a twice-weekly market. But more and more people are moving to new-build bungalows in the surrounding region. The housing stock in the old centre is getting run-down and too cheap to be worth renovating.

The old hotel, which used to take in motorists travelling south - that's shut. The eateries are cheap kebab and pizza places - not inviting bistros serving up classic French cuisine.

image copyrightGetty Images

This is happening all over France. We used to write nostalgically about the decline of the French village: the disappearance of the bar and the boulangerie from small rural communities.

That's ancient history. Now it's the turn of these small and medium-sized towns to feel that their soul is being ripped out of them.

And how do the people react? Well, I have just checked the voting results for the communes around the place where I have a house, near Cosne-sur-Loire.

In both the European and the regional elections that were held last year, the largest share of votes in the area went to the far right - to the National Front.

image copyrightAlamy

We tend to build in our heads an idealised version of small-town France. Don't worry - the French do too.

It's a land of beautiful mediaeval architecture, of narrow streets with shops full of lovely local produce, happy farmers cycling in for market - and, yes, those old painted murals advertising Pernod and Noilly Prat.

But they were the sign of those times. We have different ones now.

Join the conversation - find us on Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.

Related Topics

  • Advertising
  • France
  • France economy