This centuries-old town of pristine stone homes could be any rural village in Europe. The population peaked at around the turn of the last century, and since then it has slowly emptied until, in 2007, its public school finally shut its doors.
“They say when a town loses its school, it loses its soul,” says the mayor of St.-Pierre-de-Frugie, Gilbert Chabaud, who was elected to office the following year. After the village's only restaurant, which had catered the school, closed too, the mayor took up his post with a central question: “What can we do to make it come back to life, to make people come here?”
Mayor Chabaud, who himself left the countryside of St.-Pierre-de-Frugie, his hometown, to work in the automobile industry before retiring, found his answer in sustainability.
He banned pesticides from its hedges and plots of land in 2010. He opened up an organic store for local producers to sell their vegetables. He opened a community garden, beehives, and ongoing ecological workshops that spur knowledge-sharing among the community. He is now looking at ambitious plans for local self-sufficiency in energy and food..
He says he is guided by ecological values that as a native of this rural area come naturally, but he has a businessman’s savvy: He is tapping into the ethos shared across the West, by many a frazzled urbanite looking for an alternative to the high-pace, hyper-consumer life. And after the rapid urbanization of the 1950s and '60s left many villages across Europe abandoned or only partially used, a mini urban-to-rural exodus is under way.
Since taking office, 40 new residents have moved here – most of them from the cities, he says – bringing the population up to 400. Last year a Montessori school opened in the village. Enrollment has grown so fast that the mayor is eyeing a bigger piece of property for a new school, adjacent to the Catholic Church.
“We create museums all the time, but I didn’t want St.-Pierre-de-Frugie to be a museum of the past, the way things used to be,” he says. “I wanted to do the reverse. I wanted this to be a museum of the future, for the way we aspire for the town to look.”
Just a few months ago, Iulia Timofticiuc and her partner Guillaume Bled were living in the posh 17th arrondissement of Paris, struggling with the contradictions they felt were becoming ever more apparent in their daily lives. Ms. Timofticiuc describes a pace that left little room for human interaction or life outside of work. Their concerns about global environmental issues – and at a more micro level about what foods they were consuming and where they were coming from – turned into a slow revelation: They wanted to go rural.
“We wanted to live lighter, be productive, and be autonomous,” Timofticiuc says. But they didn’t just want to go anywhere, they wanted to go where things were already happening. So after circling potential areas on a map of France, they chose to purchase an abandoned farm in St.-Pierre-de-Frugie.
The French overwhelmingly have lived in urban areas since the rural-to-urban exodus of the 20th century, but they are increasingly drawn back to the countryside. According to the Collectif Ville Campagne, which helps city residents looking to start lives anew in rural areas, between 1999 and 2007 the rural population grew by 9 percent, compared to 4.6 growth in cities.
In a BVA poll in 2015, 64 percent said they aspired to live in the countryside. Their motivations vary. Some have lost jobs and take the opportunity to fulfill their Plan B dreams. Others are driven by ecological values or want more space for less money. Yet others are coming home to their roots after moving away for jobs. Almost all are bound by a quest for a better quality of life, says Gaëlle Rouby of the Collectif Ville Campagne.
But their ability to turn dreams into reality often crashes without support from the local government or a viable economic plan, one of the reasons the Collectif Ville Campagne was created at the end of the '90s in the first place.
“It is quite hard to find an activity or job,” says Veronique Gaillard, who moved with her husband from Lyon to the rural area of Cantal to run a hotel and fishing outfit, nearly seven years ago after she was fired from her job. She talks enthusiastically about “their adventure.” It is not without challenges though. “I am working alone quite often,” she says, something that took much adjustment after a lifetime of city living.
Signs of life
It can take adjustment for longtime residents too. Pasqual Brouillard, who moved back to St.-Pierre-de-Frugie to reopen the town restaurant, says that residents are clamoring for his restaurant – fittingly named "Saveurs et Valeurs," or "Flavors and Values," by the mayor – to go 100 percent organic. But he argues that it is not so simple to find the distributors or balance the supply and demand. So far they are about 30 to 40 percent organic. “You can’t change things with the snap of your finger,” he says.
And not all longtime locals have welcomed the changes here – “some don’t understand what all this fuss is for over pesticides,” says Timofticiuc. But the mayor opens space for locals and newcomers to share information so that locals realize “'eco' people are not all crazy people,” she adds. Mostly villagers welcome the town’s transformation efforts.
Iyvonn Gerard, who was born here and celebrated her first communion and marriage, says she is most happy about the sounds of children’s voices and the flowers planted in the spring and summer – both a sign of life. Tourists now arrive often to trek on hiking paths in the area, staying at the shuttered public school that was turned into a guesthouse. Shoppers come from 20 miles away to purchase locally grown potatoes, squash, shallots, onions, and mushrooms at the organic store, says store manager Lea Guillet.
Mayor Chabaud wants to go farther. Signing up to the goals of the Transition Town network, which guides communities looking to become fuel-independent as a response to climate change, he is installing solar panels on public buildings – and helping any residents who are interested in the same. And he is looking for land to make the town self-sufficient in food as well. He says he is getting emails daily about people interested in living here who want to get away from “growth, growth, all the time, all the time.” They plan to open up property to residents who want to try out rural living before committing.
Timofticiuc and Mr. Bled, who left jobs in youth housing policy and graphics, say they just jumped in, but they don’t feel cowed by the challenges in front of them. Instead they talk excitedly about their plans.
They talk of a café where neighbors can share ideas and knowhow, and perhaps once monthly bring their own wood and gather to use their hearth, currently in disuse, for bread-making. They too want to carve out space on their land to let others try out self-sufficiency, and eventually they will let rooms or land for tents for tourists and campers.
“Standing here, it feels like it makes sense,” Timofticiuc says in front of her barn, a large part of it in ruins.
Bled says they have not placed a time limit on this to test whether it works or not. “I don’t ask myself that question,” he says. “It has already worked. We have found our village.”