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'La vie en rose' in a French chateau is not what it used to be

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 7, 1984

Hennebont, France

''LIFE isn't what it used to be,'' sighed the Countess de la Sabliere. She was talking in the salon of her family home, Le Chateau de Locguenole, here on the southern coast of Brittany. Paintings of her ancestors hung on one wall, an original Flemish tapesty on another. Outside, the lawn sloped gently down to the river.

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The countess herself provided the final patrician touch. Dressed in an elegant velvet suit, she held her shoulders high, her handsome face stiff, and carefully enunciated her words in a pure, classical French.

''I always liked good service,'' she continued. ''But today it's hard to find. I've been looking for weeks for a gardener - no one will take the job.''

Alas, appearances are deceiving. Chateau life and aristocracy are not what they used to be in France. Indeed, the difficulty of finding a gardener is only one of many signs that the modern age has turned Countess de la Sabliere's life upside down.

To make ends meet, she has been forced to turn her chateau into a luxury hotel. The Rolls-Royces out front belong to the customers, the new nobility of lawyers, doctors, high-level government bureaucrats, and big businessmen.

The countess herself drives a Renault, lives in a cottage down the road, and has to deal with a working-class cook who boasts, with some reason, that he is the new king of the manor. He, by the way, drives a BMW coupe.

Class manners, of course, remain. The chateau sells old-style, upper-class elegance, and some of the countess's old-style, upper-class prejudices persist. She frequently denounces nouveau riche parvenus, for example, and insists that her son use the formal ''vous'' form to address her.

''I can't be anything other than I am,'' she says. ''I just can't slap people on the back.''

Still, the transformation of Chateau de Locguenole and its countess is striking. In many ways, it mirrors the evolution of French society over the past half century, with aristocrats becoming less privileged and peasants less docile and downtrodden.

Not long ago, nobility scorned business and vulgar competition as incompatible with its near divine right to rule. The local aristocrat controlled villages on semifeudal lines. He leased land to the local peasants and usually was mayor. Such was the de la Sablieres' position in Hennebont.

''The saying was that the Count de la Sabliere could travel throughout Brittany without leaving his land,'' the countess says.

This noble privilege, first shaken by the revolution, was really buried only a generation ago. German occupation during World War II shattered the country, and postwar industrialization revolutionized the land. More than 3 million peasants moved to the cities between 1947 and 1963. Many of those who stayed on the farms modernized as well, putting new agricultural technology into use and forming cooperatives.

For the de la Sablieres, the war was a nightmare. Nearby Lorient was transformed into the major Nazi U-boat base, and German admirals made Chateau de Locguenole their headquarters.

Adm. Karl Donitz spent many evenings here, and his troops looted the premises. What the Germans didn't finish by way of destruction, the Americans did with their heavy aerial bombardment.

After the liberation, the de la Sablieres came back to Hennebont. They sold much of their estate and tried to restore the chateau. It didn't work.

''Everything was in semi-ruin,'' the countess explains. ''We tried to live here as family - this salon was our dining room - but there just wasn't enough money. We started with three servants and soon were down to one part-time maid.''