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Back To the Country

photo: quai, ile de la cite, seine

The city is full of visitors, and yet...

And Stay There!

Paris:– Monday, 23. August 2004:– The notion of living 'out in the country' is an honorable one in France. It's where the roots are, and even Parisians who have lived in town for centuries feel uneasy without having a claim to some good dirt somewhere beyond Paris' Perifreak!

Then there is the modern idea that Paris shouldn't be the centre of everything in France. The country needs a bit more geographical balance, so the government gives lip–service to 'decentralization.' Once in a while, some government office in Paris is asked to leave town and move itself out to, say, Nantes.

This always creates a howl from those concerned. 'Give up Paris?' they moan. Give up the theatres, the cinemas, the thousands of restaurants and cafés, the schools their kids are in, their friends, girlfriends and relatives? Not willingly.

There are a lot of attractive smaller cities and big towns outside of Paris. Some Parisians willinglyphoto: fiat 600 of the week migrate to them in order to find a bit of calm, less pollution, and lower prices. Some even do it for the weather, because many parts of France are green and pleasant.

Ultra–rare Fiat 600 of the week.

Some migrants even go so far as giving up the city life entirely for the charms of villages. France has a lot of these. The trouble is, many younger people who live in them do not see their charm and only see their lack of opportunities – so they dream of moving to Paris for its high life.

While this criss–cross goes on, France's thinkers insist that it would be bad for the country if the countryside became deserted. Villages, even if populated only by older people, die if there are no local shops or services. Who wants to live in a place with no café, no boulangerie, or no post office?

France has a national postal service with its headquarters in Paris. It has 17,000 post offices throughout the country, making it the densest network in Europe. In addition to postal services, La Poste is also a bank. It manages savings accounts and issues cheques. You can also pay utility bills at a post office, or buy money orders to send money to starving Parisians.

The telephone and the post used to be united, but when it became apparent in the mid–1970s that telephone services made more money than postal, they were separated by the government. The post was told to pay its own way.

The French postal service put on a mighty effort. New pre–paid boxes to mail goods with, new stamps all the time, and all sorts of other post–related products and services were introduced – including email accounts for customers without access to the Internet. And the post kept on delivering mail and operating its bank.

Late last week the newspaper Le Parisien revealed that it had received a copy of a report about the future of the post office. In a program to start next January, lasting over a period of three years, the postal service intends to close an estimated 6,000 of its offices.

Some will be partly replaced by having cafés, grocery stores or boulangeries sell stamps, but a person requiring the financial services will have to travel as much as 12 kilometres. In cities the distance could be three kilometres and in the suburbs, five.

The massive shutdown will directly cause the loss of many jobs, and the demotion of many postmasters. Older people living on pension cheques should plan now on moving to villages that will retain post offices so they can cash their checks. The same goes for small businesses, especially if they use the post to ship goods.

Today in many rural areas the post office is the only point of contact, the only outpost of the république. Eliminating post offices is an odd way to go about decentralizing the country's authority.

The post must be a bit embarrassed with its plans, because local mayors are finding out about them from newspaper reports. And then maybe finding out that the post will keep an office open in whichever town that puts up the most attractive subsidy. A local subsidy to ensure a national service sounds like an idea from the 18th century.

Meanwhile post offices are trying out measures such as only opening for half–days, or not collecting nor delivering mail daily. Charges might be introduced for not being at home to receive registered mail or packages.

There is a fair amount of outrage 'out in the country.' Some small towns and villages have populations that arephoto: closed, la palette in august rising due to refugees arriving from the big cities, completely in tune with decentralization – but totally at odds with a government that sees one of its essential services as somewhat unnecessary.

Perfectly normal café closed in August.

The minister concerned, Patrick Devedjian, characterized post offices only open 'one or two' hours daily as an improvement in public service on Thursday. Unions think that 10,000 jobs will be completely lost, but La Poste maintains that 17,000 public contact points will be maintained – if only for a hour a day.

Not Going Back

In the same edition as Le Parisien's postal revelations, the paper began a series about holidayers who fancied their vacations so much that they decided to take up permanent residence where they were happiest.

According to a professor interviewed, some people in France are fed up with crowded and polluted 'megapoles.' Even in Paris the contact with friends may be no more than a profit–centre for the phone companies. 'Dropping–in' on friends is not done lightly, so it is 'not done.'

It is to escape city stress but also the frigid anonymity of life in the grinder, that some want to exchange urbanity for the imagined quality of the simple life available beyond urban centres.

This doesn't mean taking up farming or sheepherding. Most city refugees want to keep the good parts – access to health services, schools, and leisure activities – but not the city's inconveniences.

And, being French, they must have a good plan, worked out in the smallest detail. They are advised to take all the time they need for it. Mistakes are not treated lightly.

This need for over–detailed advance planning is repeated more than once, probably to frighten the less than stout–hearted. If I had read this before coming to Paris I would probably still be living in Hamburg.

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