Rural France: A tale of two villages
The notion of cosy, colourful village life has long drawn visitors to France but the reality can be very different.
How many times have you heard someone coming back from their summer holiday in the French countryside, waxing lyrical about the slow pace of Gallic life, the long, lazy lunches, the bistros serving locally-sourced gastronomic delights? Or perhaps the carefree evenings, supping aperitifs in the tree-lined square, lulled by cicadas singing in the dying heat?
You have probably envied them, perhaps even hated them a little, but have you ever asked yourself whether your friends have really had the True French Experience, in a country where unemployment is predicted to reach 11.2% by next year?
Driving into Aubeterre-sur-Dronne in the Charente, past the manicured yellow sunflower fields and the sign proclaiming proudly that this is officially one of France's prettiest villages, you could be excused for thinking you had reached paradise.
Sun-baked white houses with dark honey-coloured roofs nestle in narrow, winding streets which are packed with craft and antique shops.
Every boutique, be it a pottery studio or an ice cream parlour, seems to have the word "artisan" on its sign. There is no cinema here but the circus is in town and the puppet show has sold out.
The 12th-Century underground church sets the tone for the rest of the village - a tone of calm, preservation, profound and unchanging history, and it has proved a magnet for tourists.
But is this theme park rural France?
"Well, we have to give a good impression to the thousands of tourists who come here," smiles Pascale from the tourist office.
"In the Charente we do have a slower way of life than in the big industrial towns - but that doesn't mean we don't work here!"
The village has a population of just 400, but 20% of homeowners are now British.
"I agree that the village does appear to be a little too perfect!" admits Pascale. "Our English guests perhaps get the impression that this perfect life is normal in France."
It is not that Aubeterre is fabricating something false, it is simply that it can only exist in the way it does because it is buoyed up on tourism.
In the beautiful converted stable which potter Xavier Maffre uses as his atelier, he is expertly throwing the first exquisite pots of the morning, while a group of tourists stand admiringly open-mouthed around his wheel.
He laughs when I ask him whether I am watching the real heart of France at work.
"Oh come on!" he grins.
"I have no illusions. We're dinosaurs working like this but fortunately I am able to do the job I love because we have so many tourists here."
He finishes a bowl to a round of hushed applause.
"Tourists have the time and money to appreciate craftsmanship," he says, "but anywhere else the rhythm is very different and I wouldn't survive. People would say 'I can get 30 Made In China plates for the price you're charging for just one!'"
Travel 80km (50 miles) west to the Gironde region and you come to the little village of Saint-Seurin-de-Cursac, not far from the wine-growing town of Blaye, but not on the tourist trail.
At lunchtime, it looks like a ghost town - the bakery, the little supermarket, the butcher, the electrical shop, the pharmacy are all shut and not a single car stops off. There is no sign here boasting that it is one of France's prettiest villages.
But at least they take two or three hours off for lunch, right?
At the back of his electrical shop, owner Olivier Claire looks at me sarcastically.
"Sure," he says. "That's exactly what we do here. We go home to lunch at midday and come back drunk as lords at three."
He shakes his head. "Here's the reality check," he continues quietly. "At 07:30 I start the paperwork and at 20:00 I shut up shop - only to go to the back of the store to finish off the repairs.
"And as for lunchtime, that's when I do my home visits - I quite often don't get the time to grab anything to eat. Our government does nothing to help small businesses like mine and is totally disconnected from reality."
Unemployment in this area stands at around 18%, causing the village to be emptied of its youth. Every local resident I chat to in the street tells me regretfully that their sons and daughters now live in Bordeaux or Paris, driven far away by the hunt for work.
"I've watched this village disintegrate over the past," says local National Front politician Pierre Dinet.
"It's ageing so fast, you get the sense that the young can't wait to get out because quite frankly there's nothing for them here. Successive governments from both the right and the left don't give a fig for rural villages like these."
'Left to rot'
With the general mood so desperate, the far-right National Front has recently gained a lot of ground in this village.
In the parliamentary elections last year, the party came in third in Saint-Seurin-de-Cursac, with 17.6% of the votes. In 2011, in local elections, Pierre Dinet came in second.
"The National Front listens to the people and offers real solutions," Mr Dinet argues.
"This could be a thriving village - we have all the shops we need here but it's being left to rot. We want to bring jobs back here and to develop our tourist industry - with a few subsidies and a helping hand from the government we could thrive again and lure young families back."
At the local garage, mechanic Mohammed Belaid's blue overalls are drenched in sweat. He looks exhausted.
"I'd love to hire someone to help me - even part-time - you know, to give a local young lad a chance to learn a trade," he tells me.
"But the French system means I could never afford it - whatever I pay him, I have to pay again to the government in social charges."
He puts down his wrench and wipes his oily hands.
"The government seems to think that anyone in business has big profits - so they make us pay big taxes," he explains wearily. "I work 24/7 to see my profits reduced to peanuts."
Whatever happened to the slow pace of French life and the soporific sound of the cicadas? I ask him.
He starts up his deafening drill and turns his attention to the car in front of him.
"You mean the 35-hour week," he says, looking at me sideways. "Yeah, I heard about that 35-hour week and I can tell you that I've never experienced it in this village!"