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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > May 2016 > The French disconnection

The French disconnection

Exchanging Paris life for la France profonde is tempting—but lack of broadband is only one way in which government has neglected rural areas

In a Europe that feels increasingly vulnerable to terrorist attack, where taking public transport can often feel like an act of bravery and where, according to a 2013 survey by the European Environment Agency, more than 90 per cent of Europe’s city dwellers are exposed to levels of air pollution harmful to their health, it’s no wonder that the lure of the countryside is stronger than ever. Urban exodus in Western Europe has replaced the rural exodus of the post-war years. In Britain, 60,000 people are fleeing to the country every year; in France that figure is over 100,000.

Most of us have, at one time or another, harboured the dream of escaping to the wild to live a simpler, less stressful life, or of raising our children in a clean and peaceful environment. For many this dream dovetails nicely with the rising cost of urban living. In England in particular, where there are more than 400 people per km2, (compared to 121 people per km2 in France) remoteness has become a luxury commodity and many look to France for a piece of the wilderness. Few of us utopians, though, consider what the hidden lifestyle costs of escape might be.

I’ve experienced the full arc of dream to reality. In the winter of 2009, my husband, two youngest children and I left Paris for the Cévennes Mountains, one of France’s most remote and sparsely populated areas. (The average population density in the Cévennes is 14 people per km2.) Remoteness can be very cheap in France so for our four-bedroom, 17th-century stone house, with its crumbling outbuildings and its hectare of chestnut forest, we paid €140,000. Eight years later we moved back to Paris more broke and stressed than we were when we left and desperately trying to play professional catch-up.

On leaving the capital it had seemed like a no-brainer to me: I had two small children prone to chest infections and a husband who was having nightmares about environmental apocalypse. I longed to escape Paris’s dusty, heavily patrolled playgrounds, which formed the backdrop of my two eldest children’s childhoods. I imagined opening the back door of our new home and watching our boys rush out into the woods with their makeshift catapults like characters from a Jack London novel. What I did not envisage was that like most of their friends they too would become addicted to video games and that, given the choice, they would not spend their free time in the woods but playing Minecraft online. Nor had I imagined that their classmates who lived in the village, and not as we did in the hills, were a source of envy because they could stream cartoons. Dangerous and fruit less as it is to wish one’s children different from the way they are, I couldn’t help hoping that this situation would change. Not only did it not change, but I too began to see the slowness and unreliability of our internet connection as grounds for relocation.

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In Prospect’s May issue: Simon Taylor and Bronwen Maddox on why Hinkley Point C is an expensive gamble that might not pay off. Philip Collins examines Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and Lionel Shriver reveals why she stopped fighting being female. Alan Rusbridger responds to last month’s piece on the Guardian by Stephen Glover. Also in this issue: Nicholas Soames says there’s no such thing as "Project Fear” and Howard Davies reviews Melvyn King’s new book and suggests that we are vulnerable to another financial crisis. Plus Ruth Dudley Edwards examines the fading myths of the Easter Rising and Owen Hatherley suggests it’s time to look for a Plan B to solve London’s housing issues.
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