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The vanishing summer house that Jacques built

By William Echikson / December 13, 1982



Paris

In the 16th century, Francois I made it a royal prerogative. And during the past 15 years, Jacques - your run-of-the-mill Parisian - turned it practically into a national right.

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Their mutual passion: weekend or summer homes in the country.

Fraccois built chateaux in the Loire Valley. Jacques has covered France with a world-record 2 million (vs. 1 million in 1967) secondary residences, from renovated farmhouses to chic seaside condominiums.

But today the French secondary residence market has fallen through the floor. Prices have plummeted, construction has slumped. ''There are seven times more sellers than buyers,'' says Jean-Marie Reiller, editor of Maisons de France magazine.

The entire real estate market has been hit hard. City apartments and suburban homes are not selling either. Andre Pichard of the Ile de France Real Estate Association says houses in Paris suburbs that sold for $250,000 a year ago now sell for as low as $140,000 - if they sell at all.

Mr. Pichard and other agents blame the general depressed economic atmosphere - especially high interest rates - for the bad second-home market. But they add that their plight has been made particularly severe by the Socialist government's 'sweat-the-rich policies.'

For the Frenchman, the decline of the real estate market is a poignant symbol of hard times. The French passion for a house and land runs deep. In a poll taken not long ago, 51 percent of the French who were questioned placed this passion first among all life's priorities.

''The French are incredibly attached to the land,'' sociologist Jean-Michel Roux says. ''Owning a piece of land and a property, preferably in a small village, is their dream.''

The power of this dream is illustrated by the boom in second homes during the past 15 years. In that period 1 million country homes were purchased.

Behind the explosion was the flight of the French peasant from the land to the city after World War II. Thirty years ago about one-third of the population worked on farms; today only about one-tenth does.

The migration left tens of thousands of residential buildings in the country unwanted and available for part-time use by the new mass of French urban dwellers.

But about three years ago the market leveled off, says Jean Ducarre of the National Building Association. High interest rates were the primary cause, he says, but prices were also too high - $70,000 and up.

''Young potential buyers decided that a second home wasn't worth the exorbitant price, that vacations in the Bahamas were a more desirable and better deal,'' Mr. Reillier says.

But it was only after the Socialists came to power 11/2 years ago that the second-home market collapsed. The new government dropped income-tax deductions for rent losses on second homes and threatened to increase taxes on any residence not occupied by its owner.

It also enacted a ''wealth tax'' that assessed for the first time the assets that prosperous families once funneled into real estate. Diamonds, easier to hide, are now a more popular investment than a fancy second home, Mr. Reiller says.

The government denies it is at fault. It blames interest rates and inflated property prices. ''We had a real estate crisis before Francois Mitterrand's election,'' Roger Quillot, housing and urban affairs minister, said recently. ''It is only continuing.''

Mr. Quillot conceded that some of the government's actions had ''created worries.'' But he and his Socialist colleagues are not weeping much about the real estate downturn. The Socialists would prefer that the French invest their money in industry rather than property.

''It is a weakness to have French money invested only in stone,'' Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy said recently.

Still, the French seem addicted to property. Witness the continued strength of the chateau market. ''For buyers of such properties - often including hunting grounds, a moat, and inlaid woodwork - money after all is no object,'' says Patricia Hawkes, director of a real estate agency that specializes in the chateau market.

''I continue to have more buyers than sellers,'' she says.