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A Shrinking Town at the Center of France’s Culture Wars


CALLAC, France – A miniature town in the middle of a cow pasture in Brittany seems an unlikely backdrop for French souls searching for immigration and identity.

The main square is named for the date in 1944 that local resistance fighters were surrounded by Nazi soldiers, many of which were never seen again. It offers a cafe run by a social club, a museum dedicated to Spaniards Brittany and a huge serving of country flights – empty buildings, ovens of they were pulled down and windows slammed, some for decades.

So when town council members heard of a program that could renovate dilapidated buildings and fill needed jobs as nurse assistants and builders by bringing in refugees skilled, it’s like a winning lottery ticket.

“It hit me like morning,” said Laure-Line Inderbitzin, a deputy mayor. “It sees refugees not as charity, but as an opportunity.”

But what town leaders see as an opportunity for rejuvenation, others see as evidence of the “wonderful replacement” of the native French has become a rock of anger. and anxiety, especially on the right.

Immediately, diminutive Callac, a town of just 2,200 people, dismembered, was the focus of national attention and the site of competing protests for and against the plan. Today, it lies at the intersection of complex issues that have plagued France for years: how to deal with the growing number of migrants arriving in the country and how to breathe life. New life into the wither towns, before it’s too late.

As in many towns across France, Callac’s population has declined slowly since the end of the Trente Glorieuses, a period of growth that lasted 30 years after the war when living standards and wages rose. Today, about half of those who stay are retirees. The largest employer is nursing homes.

A wander around downtown reveals dozens of empty storefronts that once housed florists, dry cleaners and photo studios. The town’s last dental office announced in July that it was closing – the stress of repeatedly turning away new patients, when her patient list topped 9,000, was overwhelming. for Françoise Méheut.

She stopped sleeping, she burst into tears in her dental chair, and she switched to antidepressants before deciding to retire early.

“It was a disaster,” said Dr. Méheut. “I have the impression of abandoning people.”

“I’m selling, and nobody’s buying,” she added of her business. “If there was a dentist among the refugees, I would be very happy.”

While many in town said there were no jobs, the council conducted a survey and found the opposite – 75 unpaid jobs, from nursing assistant to contractor, regardless of location. direction Unemployment rate 18 percent.

The council still hopes to implement its plan in partnership with the Merci Endowment Fund, an organization founded by a wealthy Parisian family that has made a fortune in high-end children’s clothing and wants to pay again.

In 2016, the family’s matriarch volunteered to host an Afghan refugee in the family’s mansion near the Eiffel Tower. Her three sons, seeing the joy he brought to their mother’s life and the talents he contributed, wanted to expand the idea widely.

“The idea is to create a win-win situation,” says eldest son, Benoit Cohen, a French filmmaker and author who wrote a book about the experience called “Mohammad, My Mother and I me” said.

“They will help revive the village.”

Project Merci has proposed highly skilled asylum seekers, recruited to have the skills as well as the desire to live in the countryside. The Cohens then promised to develop a wraparound program to help them integrate, with local French courses and apartments in refurbished buildings.

The plan also calls for new community spaces and training programs for all – locals and refugees together – something that Ms. Inderbitzin, the project’s local champion on the council and was a teacher in the most excited local middle school.

The town has more than 50 non-profit clubs and associations, including one that runs the local cinema and another that provides food to hungry families in town.

“Social development for all – that’s Callac’s gene,” said Ms. Inderbitzin. “It is a virtuous circle. They can bring a lot of energy, culture, youth. “

Not everyone is excited about that prospect. One petition brought up by three residents protesting the project already has over 10,000 signatures – more from far than Callac..

But even in town, some complain about a lack of consultation or transparency. They worried Callac would lose its French character and would trade the tranquility of a small town for the problems of the big city. Others questioned the motives of a wealthy Parisian family to interfere in their country house.

“We are not lab rats. Danielle Le Men, a retired teacher in the town who is forming a community group to stop a project she fears will bring “radical Islam” to the community, says we do not here for them to test.

Catching the wind of the dispute, the right-wing anti-immigrant Reconquest party, run by failed presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, staged a protest in September, warning the project would cause insecurity. Security is dangerous and complains that it will introduce halal shops and girls. scarf.

A block away, protesters had packed the main square. Murielle Lepvraud, a local politician from the extreme left-wing France Unbowed party, told the crowd, telling the crowd, “I replied, yes, your ideas will soon be replaced.”

More than 100 riot policemen holding shields stopped the groups.

Even many of those who witnessed Callac’s decline were not convinced.

“All the young people have left, because there are no jobs here,” said Siegried Leleu, serving glasses of kir and beer to a thin white-haired crowd gathered around her bar. , Les Marronniers, on a Friday afternoon.

She said, there was a time when she invited to play billiards and karaoke and kept the faucet running late. But when the town’s youth left, she adjusted her closing time to fit the schedule of her remaining clientele – 8 p.m.

“Why do we assign work to outsiders?” she speaks. “We should help everyone here first.”

Standing on the street outside her little bar, which resembled a cluttered antique store, her neighbor, Paul Le Contellac, assessed the proposal from a different angle.

His uncle married a refugee who fled Spain with her family during the civil war and found shelter in this village. Later, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, his grandmother raised the resistance in her attic.

“This is a town that welcomes refugees,” said Mr. Le Contellac. “Callac isn’t ugly, but it’s not pretty either. It needs some new energy.”

While immigration may have the potential to do so, the issue remains hotly contested, even as the migration crisis has been alleviated by the pandemic.

Today, when the pandemic seems to be waning, The number of asylum seekers coming to France is increasing again, threatened to restore the volatility of the matter.

Since the height of the migration crisis a few years ago, President Emmanuel Macron’s government has tried to separate the differences in its immigration policy.

On the one hand, it aims to deter asylum seekers by increasing police at the border and by cutting some state services.

On the other hand, for those granted asylum, it has poured resources into French lessons and job programs to make it easier for them to integrate.

The government has also tried to disperse asylum seekers outside Paris, where services are strained, housing is hard to find and large tent camps have sprung up.

Recently, Mr. Macron announced that he wanted to formalize the policy in a new immigration bill, sending asylum seekers from dense urban centers, already plagued with economic and social problems. , to “rural areas where people are losing”.

Similar plans have been made in Callac, which, paradoxically, has been accepting refugee families since 2015, about 38 in total, with little or no notice, like many other towns. small French town.

Mohammad Ebrahim heard the din of protests from his living room window, but had no idea what the commotion was – certainly not about him, his wife and four children, who had arrived. A year ago.

The Kurds have escaped Al Qaeda in Syria, feeling nothing but welcome, snapping photos on their mobile phones of the meals and community celebrations to which they were invited. But the perks of village hospitality are offset by the logistics of car-free rural life. Training, medical appointments, even regular French classes are far away.

When he heard about the plans to offer all-inclusive services and schools in Callac, Mr. Ebrahim had a big smile on his face. “After that, we could go to a French class every day,” he said.

Callac could now prove to be a testing ground on whether a more structured approach could work and overcome the divide.

“This has become a French political issue,” said Sylvie Lagrue, a local volunteer who takes refugees to doctor appointments and helps them set up the internet. “Now, everyone is hoping this will settle down, and we move on with the show.”

While the project has yet to have an official budget, timeline or target number of asylum seekers to be resettled, the town council is moving forward.

It recently bought an abandoned rock school, which rises like a ghost in the middle of town, and announced plans to turn it into the “heart” of the project – with a refugee reception area , as well as a community nursery and a co-working space.

The Merci Foundation acquired the building where the town’s last bookstore closed in August. It now plans to reopen the shop to the community, while housing a first family of asylum seekers in the apartment upstairs.

“The beginning has to be slow,” Mr. Cohen said. “We have to see if it works. We don’t want to scare people off.”

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