Was surprised to discover that people in Aveyron resent the expression la France profonde. They interpret it as condescending, implying a backwater inhabited by country bumpkins. No matter how hard you insist you meant it as a compliment to a rural area that has preserved its authenticity, the Aveyronnais will look at you suspiciously, or at best dubiously, and understandably so, since not so long ago the Aveyron was precisely this, backward and underdeveloped. Today, still, the keen observer will detect remnants of those times here and there, even in its main towns (the largest of which, Rodez, has only 53,785 inhabitants, and that’s including the suburbs).
The phrase sounds particularly offensive when uttered by the ‘cousins’ who have made it in Paris, les Parisiens – not a very popular lot down here who, I’ve been told, behave as if they own the place when they come down for their holidays. Some 320,000 of them live in the Paris area, sometimes going back several generations. There are many more who have by now been diluted into the general population and no longer identify with the homeland. This is the largest French community living in the capital, outnumbering the Bretons and the 263,000 who reside in the Aveyron, over half of whom are actually outsiders. That’s without counting their compatriots who moved further afield and left us no statistics, and whose success stories reach as far as California and the Argentinean Pampa.
No matter where they have settled, the Aveyronnais diaspora has always been dynamic, enterprising, hard working and intelligent – the perfect combination of ingredients for success. Added to this is a shrewd business sense inherited from their peasant ancestors, which in Paris, helped them conquer the entire café industry. All the legendary cafés once frequented by Jean-Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir and other Ernest Hemingways, belonged to Aveyronnais. Many still do. In California, some of them were equally successful in the laundry business, which later shifted into Chinese hands. I am yet to find out whether Thomas Keller’s famous restaurant The French Laundry in Napa Valley was not initially a French laundry owned by an Aveyronnais.
Life was no bed of roses back home, a hilly, rugged land, spreading over 873,512 hectares ( 3386 sq. m). on the southern edge of the Massif Central. Winters were harsh, hillsides were steep, the soil was poor and the road network was inadequate, leaving its mosaic of miniature regions cut off from one another, and the area as a whole isolated from the outside world. Other than in Roman times, highways always shunned it in favour of the more convenient basin of the Rhône to the east and the Garonne Valley to the west. Even today, when technology can defy natural obstacles, the high-speed TGV has chosen to skirt it, simply because it would not have paid off to bring it over. Guidebooks followed suit, inexcusably, brushing over one of the country’s most compelling areas with impunity. No wonder most foreigners have never heard of the Aveyron. Those who think they have are often embarrassed to find out they had confused it with the town of Avignon, the capital of the Vaucluse in the southeast. When guidebooks do mention some of its sites, rather than situate them in the Aveyron, where they belong, they incorporate them into overlapping geographical or historical regions – the Quercy for instance, which takes in Western Aveyron, thus adding to the confusion.
To clarify matters, the Aveyron was one of the 83 départements (administrative districts) created during the French Revolution, when the nationalised territory was redistributed (today there are 95 départements in metropolitan France). By and large, it replaced the old province of Rouergue and was renamed after the most central of its three main rivers, the other two being the Lot and the Tarn, to the north and to the south respectively. All three rivers are tributaries of the Garonne, but the Aveyron alone takes its source in the département, by Séverac-le-Château. Owing to its isolation, the Rouergue remained a distinct entity and developed a strong individual character and a unique identity, at once quintessentially French yet mysteriously different, going back to the ancient Celts for sure, perhaps to dawns unknown. This is la France profonde at its deepest, as tenaciously rooted in its identity as it was in its struggle to survive in an inhospitable environment. It was that tenacity that enabled the Aveyronnais of Paris to pile up small fortunes of francs behind their café counters, when given half a chance. But the homeland offered no such opportunities and lagged behind. It was archaic, remote, and deserted en masse by its natives.
But France was changing, putting aside the unpleasant parenthesis of the Occupation and shaking off the dust of the past. Optimism reigned supreme in the 1960s, striding towards prosperity to the delight of French households, and also towards the advent of the consumer age, which was not to everyone’s liking. Following the legacy of the May 1968 ‘événements’, many young people turned their backs on the alienating city and wandered through the French countryside in search of Arcadia. Some found it in the Aveyron where they settled under the newly coined label of néo-Aveyronnais, often in old, deserted farmhouses they bought and did up for a song. The natives eyed them with suspicion and overall did not welcome their arrival, but it’s a good thing they came, because they injected young blood and breathed new vitality into an area that was in danger of dying out.
Imbued with the energy of 1968, the politically-minded among these néo-Aveyronnais headed south, towards the vast uplands of the Larzac, where they joined forces with some natives under the umbrella of the Confédération Paysanne. Led by the high media profile José Bové, they fought a ten-year, nationwide battle from 1971 to 1981 against the extension of a military camp at a place called La Cavalerie. Since then the Larzac has remained a hotbed of political activism, taking on all the planet’s ideological struggles. focusing at present on the ecological repercussions of globalisation. Hence their fight against malbouffe (junk food), which led to the dismantling of the McDonald in nearby Millau and to the destruction of genetically modified crops, of which more later. How extraordinary that this remote, empty corner of France was picked out in August 2003 to host a gigantic protest with international coverage against the World Trade Organisation meeting in Cancun, Mexico. Driving through the empty Larzac, the Confédération Paysanne’s giant graffitis stand out against the vast horizons, yet the majority of Aveyronnais are hardly sympathetic to the movement. On the other hand, they often do share their dislike for Brussels whose agricultural legislation is threatening to destroy that very rural France the néo-Aveyronnais came seeking.
Your average Aveyronnais is no revolutionary. He is hard working and wished to enjoy some of the windfalls of the post-war national prosperity, which he converted into boring modern bungalows that scarred the landscape but had running water and bathrooms. This was only a gesture towards progress, however. Big-scale development could only be hoped for by breaking through the area’s isolation. It took twenty years of Aveyronnais tenacity to persuade the authorities in Paris to bring over a north-south axis of the motorway, but it still needed to be joined to the strip lying south of the Tarn Valley. The Millau Viaduct now provides the hitherto missing link that will eventually bring together northern and southern Europe. It is a twist of history that faraway Aveyron may one day become a major pivot of international communications. No less paradoxical is the fact that the world’s tallest and most spectacularly contemporary bridge should stand like an emblematic spearhead towards the future in an area where the most ancient past of France has been recorded.
While we visitors meander through the countryside in search of a quaint, perched village, the local inhabitants of the Aveyron get wired to the internet. Today’s Aveyron has become the breeding ground of a new creative, forward-looking generation, a mix of natives, néos, and an increasing number of foreigners, who are no less miffed by the old picture-postcard image of the Aveyron than others are by the phrase la France Profonde. But somehow they have managed to update the picture-postcard rather than do away with it – and this is the key to their unique achievement. My journey to the Aveyron allowed me to see and hear several of their success stories. Thanks to this new breed of inhabitants, the Aveyron is undergoing a stupendous transformation which is turning it into the up-and-coming département of contemporary France. This was confirmed by a survey conducted by the French magazine l’Express which examined quality of life in metropolitan France by départements. Amazingly, the one-time destitute, backward Aveyron came out the winner!
Until recently the direct day train ride between Paris Gare d’Austerlitz and Aveyron’s capital Rodez took 7 hours, a lovely slow-pace journey from Figeac on, stopping on its way at every little town. Despite petitions, the train was cancelled in December 2006 because the line wasn’t deemed profitable enough, so now it takes even longer to get here by train. Distances in the Aveyron are still measured in time rather than in mileage. Modernity has stepped in, but tactfully. The slow-paced traveller will rejoice. To buy the book directly from the author: //www.thirzavallois.com