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As France's Towns Wither, NY Times

I think the NY Times pay-wall lets you read a few articles a month for free. The author has been going to Albi, France for dozens of years, and has found the core getting hollowed out by peripheral big-box malls, just like in the U.S.:

As France’s Towns Wither, Fears of a Decline in ‘Frenchness’


... Measuring change, and decay, is not easy in France, where beauty is just around the corner and life can seem unchanged over decades. But the decline evident in Albi is replicated in hundreds of other places. France is losing the core of its historic provincial towns — dense hubs of urbanity deep in the countryside where judges judged, Balzac set his novels, prefects issued edicts and citizens shopped for 50 cheeses.


Before arriving, I picked up a government report, an autopsy of many French provincial capitals: Agen, Limoges, Bourges, Arras, Beziers, Auxerre, Vichy, Calais and others. In these old towns, many harder hit than Albi, the interplay of the human-scale architecture, weathered stone and brick, and public life had been one of the crucibles of French history and culture for centuries. Now they were endangered, as even the dry language of the report conveyed that an essential part of French life is disappearing.

“This phenomenon of the devitalization of the urban centers is worrisome,” the government report declared, “as the stores contribute so much to city life and largely fashion it.”


Posted by
5263 posts

This was an interesting article that describes the French version of a phenomenon we know very well in the US -- the hollowing out of town centers and some urban downtowns due to retail sprawl around the edges, encouraged by declining transit, overbuilding highways, and poor local planning. My hometown is no Albi, and our downtown still has some vitality, but the story should be familiar to most of us.

Posted by
345 posts

I read that article with interest a couple of days ago. I sure hope they learn from our mistakes, and put the brakes on that kind of devitalization of the urban centers.

Posted by
2916 posts

I read that article last week. I have recognized the same kind of thing happening in many French towns for many years. For example, 2 years ago we drove to a town in the Jura -- Gray -- near where we were staying. It was supposed to have a market, and be somewhat charming. There was no market, and the town was dreary, with lots of closed shops and For Sale signs. Sad.

Posted by
2754 posts

Another interesting NYT article, I'm pretty sure it was in book review, about how "Provence" was invented by the French tourist folks long before Peter Mayles blew it open to the entire world. And for that matter, by the artists and the writers who started the deluge. Paris was getting too crowded so they hired an American ad agency to help them sex up other regions of the country!

Posted by
11973 posts

It's not a planning question, it's a consumer preference question. If consumers (French, American, Canadian, German, etc.) prefer shopping at a mall to quaint little markets, they will. Zoning is like a finger in the dike, eventually people find ways around it. In fact, finding ways around rules and regulations is a major aspect of "Frenchness". ;-)

Posted by
5789 posts

RE: French version of a phenomenon we know very well in the US -- the hollowing out of town centers and some urban downtowns due to retail sprawl around the edges, encouraged by declining transit, overbuilding highways, and poor local planning.

France is 40 or 50 years behind parts of the USA that I've seen where the flight to the suburbs occurred following the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I am seeing the reverse as younger people are fleeing the suburbs of their upbringing for the urban centers. I would have like to have the foresight and capital to have bought the hollowed out town centers of San Francisco and Silicon Valley at the turn of the century.

Posted by
2929 posts

I'm with Edgar. We seem to be changing back to a more urban or central lifestyle...something I chose long ago. Hopefully, the automobile becomes less necessary in the future. Thank goodness. It's a shame that France is leaning the opposite way, at the moment.

Posted by
223 posts

A couple of thoughts about this. First, one thing an American would notice upon staying in France for an extended period is how comparatively lackadaisical French shop owners and store employees seem to be about making money.

In the U.S., many small business people work very long hours trying to make a go of it. French workers, while they work very hard and are quite efficient while they're working, are different. They value their time off and this goes for shop owners as well as employees at, say, multinationals such as Michelin or Solvay.

Consequently, besides the closure from noon to 2 or 2:30 in the afternoon each day, and the summer congé (seasonal closure; typically for 2 to 4 weeks in August), one finds signs on shop doors with "fermeture exceptionnelle" (special closure) with a surprising frequency. In other words, it's not that "exceptionnelle."

Other times, shops are closed for seemingly no reason at all -- no sign; no nothing. An example: I moved a few months ago from a large French city to a small town in Bourgogne, and there is a shop in town I walk by nearly every day, and I have yet to see it open. It's a nice shop, at least looking through the windows: beautiful home decorations and some clever lamps (the French seem to like whimsical lamps) but even if I had wanted to pay 159€ for one of those lamps, I couldn't without taking a brick to the window or jimmying the door. Down the street a ways is a health food ("Bio") store. I've been struggling mightily to find silken tofu in France and was hoping they might have some. Who knows? I visited them twice last week because of a recipe I was making that called for silken tofu, and despite the sign on the door saying they should be open, they weren't. It's pretty frustrating.

The big box stores (E. Leclerc; Carrefour, Leroy Merlin, Casino, Auchan, Intermarché, and so on), however, are more similar to American stores in their business practices. They're open when the sign on the door or their website says they'll be open. They don't close at noon. They don't close in the summer. If you need something they sell, you know you can get it with certainty during their posted business hours. That's not the case with many of the small stores in city centers.

So, even if the average French customer is completely in tune with French shopkeepers' practices, it wouldn't take many "fermetures exceptionnelles" before a quick trip out to big box land looks pretty darn appealing.

Coincidentally, we drove down to Vichy today to do some shopping in the city center. This is only my second time there, but I noticed that there are a lot of varied merchants and foot traffic there, so I'm a little surprised to see it on the list of the article noted by Tim.

To close this over-long comment, I, too, regret the trend of seeing "local louer" signs (space for rent) in closed shop windows. There are plenty in my town. But some of the cause of this can be laid at the feet of the French merchant. Now that consumers have a choice, small town merchants may want to re-think their business practices to avoid having their friends and neighbors exercise that choice.

Posted by
12994 posts

Of the provincial capitals you list, I am only familiar with Arras in Nord Pas-de-Calais since I've been there numerous times, walked and explored the place. True, I've been out to the Carrefour and Leclerc; (those mini-malls); for those you need a car. If I remember correctly, Cassino is the only one in the town itself to be reached on foot.

There are parts of Arras vis-a-vis the buildings in the centre ville and, more so, the area around the Scarpe River where they have the dilapidated look, the gritty area of Arras. The centre ville is certainly not gritty, but some parts could use some refurbishing, eg, the square with the Statue of Victor Hugo, based on the last time I saw the place, along with a good paint job. The tourists, if any, usually British, no Americans at all, only go to the centre ville and the Hotel de Ville (where the Tourist Office is situated) Have I noticed the change in store fronts? Of course, the shops change in the main shopping area, such as the corner store holding the big conspicuous "Konica" sign is gone,

Posted by
2353 posts

This trend is/was sad in the US and is sad in France or anywhere for that matter. The sad truth is "Mom & Pops" just can't keep up with the demand in growing areas leaving the door open for big box stores to move in. Once the big box stores take hold even the urban dweller will make the trek to the burbs for better price, selection and convenient hours. The only defense is to patronize the local shops and help support them. Personally I have ceased patronizing a large family owned retailer for years now and shop local for as much as I can.

Posted by
12994 posts

"...trek to the burbs for a better price." Exactly the case in Arras which is the location of Carrefour and Leclerc, ie, at the outskirts of the city or over in the next village, (Rancourt?), both of which are basically mini-malls. Because of the location at the outskirts or in the next village, parking is provided in its small lot as one of the enticements.

Posted by
2916 posts

French workers, while they work very hard and are quite efficient while they're working, are different. They value their time off and this goes for shop owners as well as employees at, say, multinationals such as Michelin or Solvay.

Very true. A couple of years ago we were staying with a French friend in Burgundy, and she had her whole family over for dinner on a Friday. At the end of the evening I asked one of her sons if had had to work the next day, and he looked at me like I had 2 heads and answered "Non. C'est le weekend."

By the way, K, I see you visited Vichy. Not far from there is Saint Pourcain, and last time I was there it fit the description of a dying town perfectly. So many closed shops. I hope it's improved.

Posted by
11613 posts

I, too, am saddened by the empty storefronts.

I noticed that many bus routes go to the malls on the outskirts of towns, you really don't need a car to shop there.