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The slow change from French family farm to trendy tourist spot

By William EchiksonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / October 7, 1985

St. Maximin, France

The feast began at 1 p.m. At the Roulet farm, 80 guests sat down at one long table under the shade of cypress trees.

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The meal opened with a mixed salad. Next, the guests attacked the mutton, finishing off every last bit of the two lambs that had been roasted for the occasion, adding good helpings of beans on the side.

Then came the obligatory cheese platter and the melons, and by the time everyone stepped away from the table to play the French game boules, the clock read 5:30 p.m.

``It's like this every big holiday,'' explains hostess Giselle Roulet. ``It's always been like that, too.''

Well, not quite. Unlike in the past, few farmers crowded around the huge table. Instead, there were Parisians, Belgians, even an American, all enjoying a reposing vacation chez Roulet.

When this was pointed out during one of her few breaks from work, the short, stocky, Mrs. Roulet said in her singsong, heavy Provenal accent, ``Why, yes, many things have changed.''

Many things, indeed. The poor subsistence farmer of one generation ago in this area of southern France has been replaced by a modern businessman-farmer. Like Mrs. Roulet's husband, Andr'e, the French farmer may still dress in a white undershirt. He may grow a traditional thin, black mustache. And he may boast a rotund figure. But while pockets of poverty remain, most farmers echo Mr. Roulet's proud statement: ``I am no longer a peasant.''

The changes came quickly. After World War II, the small village of St. Maximin, just outside Uz`es, about 60 miles from Marseille, looked like a backwater. During the war, the village's economic mainstay -- a phosphate mine -- closed down, never to reopen. From a prewar figure of almost 600, the population fell at the end of the war to a low of 190.

The remaining farmers struggled. As journalist John Ardagh explains in his book, ``France in the 1980s,'' they ``eked out a living from a useless polyculture: a patch of vines for the family's own vinegary wine, a cow or two and some mangy chickens, cabbages struggling to grow on a chalky hillside.''

What to do? Despite looming poverty, the Roulets refused to move to a city and work in a factory. Although many of their fellow villagers were forced to move away, the French don't relocate as easily as Americans.

So the young couple dug their hoe into the ground and hung on. When the common market was established in the late 1950s, they suddenly found prosperity. Its common agricultural policy assured farmers generous prices for whatever they could grow.

The Roulets also helped themselves. Mr. Roulet read in an agricultural journal about the potential profits in asparagus. He planted 10 acres of the vegetable. Soon he brought more land, raising his original stake of 20 acres to 50. He planted more cherry and pear trees. Marketed by a cooperative he and his fellow farmers set up in the area during the 1950s, all the produce sold well in Paris.

Lately, however, the market for farm products has been dropping off. Europe's farmers simply grow too much produce, and today the European Community has begun to reduce the lucrative subsidies that helped the farmers like the Roulets so much.