The opposition between town and country would be outdated. Revenge of the villages?

The Yellow Vests crisis has brought to light a deep divide between town and country. The inhabitants of the cities would be opposed to the inhabitants of the fields by different, even antagonistic, lifestyles and socio-economic levels. But does this cleavage correspond to a reality? For Eric Charmes, a sociologist specialising in the question of public spaces, territorialisation, urban and rural lifestyles, the opposition between town and country is outdated. Attracted by the dream of "the city in the country", peri-urban dwellers now account for a quarter of the French population. This silent evolution is transforming rural landscapes and the social geography of France. His latest book Revenge of the villages has just been published in Le Seuil; we publish here the good sheets of the introduction.
It's time to take seriously the joke attributed to Alphonse Allais, who recommended "building cities in the country, because the air is cleaner there. In recent decades, many city dwellers have moved to the countryside. In doing so, they have not become entirely rural: they have remained urban dwellers. The issue of employment is a good example of this. What better identifies the countryside, in the collective imagination, than agriculture? Nowadays, however, agriculture only accounts for a few percent of total employment in the countryside, and even then, including the food industry. In many villages, the majority of working people work in the city.
The distribution of income does not make it easier to distinguish between urban and rural areas. Regularly, reports show the poverty of a rural France that has become "peripheral", compared to the France of cities where the "bobos" (1) are said to congregate. However, this is only part of the reality. High incomes are not concentrated in cities in general, but in a very specific type of space: the centres and well-off suburbs of a dozen or so large metropolises. But these are far from representing all cities.
This interference is the result of massive mutations. To sum them up in one formula, the old rural-urban divide is outdated. This observation, however provocative it may seem, is nevertheless an old one. As early as 1970, Henri Lefebvre, a major figure in the urban debate, theorized about this overtaking and the extension of urban areas outside the city, in the countryside (2). It is true that cities, as places where buildings and human beings are concentrated, are always formally different from the countryside, with their villages surrounded by fields. This is why these terms can continue to be used. Today, however, they refer primarily to landscapes.

The peri-urban or when the cities come to the countryside

It is still too common a mistake to link these landscapes to the life forms once associated with them. As Henri Lefebvre predicted, urbanization has disrupted the old economic, social and political divisions between town and country. […]
Urban sprawl outside the cities may not be nowhere more evident than in the suburbs. This is where the major transformations of our society are expressed. Such attention is all the more necessary as the periurban area is not getting good press (3). When it is not sent back to its ugliness, to consumerist alienation or to selfishness, it is presented as a land of relegation, the heart of "peripheral France" (4) and the Mecca of the "protest" vote. These images are not without foundation, but they give too partial a vision of reality, to the point that they become caricatured.
Behind the peri-urbanization lies an old dream, as in Alphonse Allais' joke: to marry the advantages of the city with those of the countryside. With the development of means of transport and remote communication, this dream has become a reality for many: it is possible to live in the country, while still being able to visit a city regularly. This sometimes requires journeys of an hour or more to get to work, but this constraint seems acceptable to households that, year after year, settle in the towns and villages surrounding the cities.
It is through such a process that the cities come to the country. Peri-urbanization, defined as the integration of the countryside into the orbit of cities, is one of the strongest manifestations of this movement. Under way in France for more than fifty years, it has gradually, quietly and quietly, disrupted territories and lifestyles. Over the years, according to INSEE, the peri-urban area has attracted nearly a quarter of the French population. However, this upheaval remains poorly perceived and misunderstood.

Contrary to popular belief

Citizens' facilities in the countryside tend to be understood as a rejection of the city, its pollution, its oppressive crowds, its insecurity, its high rents. In this perspective, the press regularly portrays young households leaving the "hell of the cities" to live a rural idyll. Geographers are not to be outdone, with some not hesitating to speak of an "urban exodus". However, can we really speak of urban exodus when the most attractive countryside is close to large cities?
Households moving into single-family homes are often accused of causing excessive urbanization of land, to the detriment of agriculture and natural areas. In addition, they are dependent on cars, pollute and consume a lot of energy.
Faced with these perils, the centres of the densest cities appear much more favourable to ecological transition. People travel there more often by bicycle, they use public transport more often, and the heat that passes through the walls of apartments heats the neighbours rather than the atmosphere. This has led to the idea that the ecologist, if he or she is to be consistent, must live in the heart of large cities. This idea leaves one perplexed: do we really have to move away from nature to protect it? Is it really necessary to condemn those who, by moving into a single-family home, are helping to revitalize the countryside close to the metropolises?
In some villages, particularly around the big cities, there is a large vote for the National Rally (Front National), while in the centre of these cities, the preference is for parties reputed to be in favour of cultural and international exchanges. Many intellectuals consider that it is no coincidence that the voters who are most open to the world live in the heart of cities, precisely where the diversity of populations and activities is at its greatest and where urbanity is strongest.
Such an explanation is appealing, but it is too reminiscent of the old stereotypes of forward-looking cities and lagging countryside, populated by stubborn peasants. Is the vote for the Front National really about urbanity? Shouldn't it rather be understood as an expression of the unequal distribution of the benefits of globalization, a distribution that favours the hearts of the big cities? Elected representatives from villages and the countryside regularly complain that they are forgotten, that they no longer have sufficient financial means, that they are gradually being dispossessed of their prerogatives. It is true that recent developments in public action favour metropolises.
However, the countryside still has some beautiful remains. Sometimes they even dominate the cities. At the same time as the city dwellers leave for the countryside, the villages capture a share of the cities' resources. This competition puts some of them in crisis, with shopping streets in disrepair, increasing poverty and a declining population. Sometimes, the demographic and political weight of the countryside neighbouring the cities is such thatthey've taken over the cities. In these situations, although still few in number, the revenge of the villages is complete.
Eric Charmes, Revenge of the villages. Essay on peri-urban FranceÉditions Le Seuil, La République des idées, January 2019, 107 p.

READ ALSO IN UP' : How to revive our villages and town centres?

(1) This opposition has taken hold in the public debate following the work of Christophe Guilluy.
(2) La révolution urbaine, Gallimard, 1970.
(3) Gérald Billard and Arnaud Brennetot, Le périurbain a-t-il mauvais presse? Geoethical analysis of the media discourse about peri-urban space in France. Articulo, n°5, 2009
(4) Christophe Guilluy himself considers this assimilation of peri-urban and peripheral France to be a misleading approximation (see Le crépuscule de la France d'en-haut, Flammarion, 2016).
Header photo : Village of Locronan - Finistère(29) France

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