A shrinking city at the center of France’s culture wars

A shrunken town amid cow pastures in Brittany seems an unlikely setting for the French soul in search of immigration and identity.

The main square is named after the date in 1944 when local resistance fighters were rounded up by Nazi soldiers, many of whom were never seen again. It features a cafe run by a social club, a museum dedicated to the Brittany Spaniel, and a healthy helping of rural flight – abandoned empty buildings, their railings knocked down and windows closed, some for decades.

So when city council members heard about a program that could renovate dilapidated buildings and fill much-needed jobs like care aides and builders by bringing in skilled refugees, it seemed like a lottery ticket. winner.

“It hit me like lightning,” said Laure-Line Inderbitzin, an assistant mayor. “He views refugees not as charity, but as opportunity.”

But what city leaders saw as a chance for rejuvenation, others saw evidence of a ‘great replacement’ of ethnic French people who have become a touchstone of anger and anxiety , especially on the hard right.

In no time, tiny Callac, a town of just 2,200 people, was divided, the center of national attention and the scene of competing protests for and against the plan. Today, it stands at the intersection of complex questions that have plagued France for many years: how to cope with the growing number of migrants arriving in the country and how to breathe new life into ailing cities, before it don’t be too late.

As with many towns in France, Callac’s population has been in slow decline since the end of the Trente Glorieuses, the post-war 30-year period of growth when living standards and wages rose. Today, about half of those who remain are retirees. The biggest employer is the retirement home.

A stroll through the city center reveals dozens of empty storefronts, where florists, dry cleaners and photo studios once stood. The city’s last dental practice announced in July that it was closing – the stress of continually turning away new patients, as its patient list topped 9,000, was too much for Françoise Méheut.

She stopped sleeping, burst into tears in the dental chair, and turned to antidepressants before finally deciding to retire early.

“It’s a disaster,” said Dr. Méheut. “I feel like I’m letting people down.”

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

While many in town say there are no jobs, the council did a survey and found the opposite – 75 unfilled salaried jobs, from carers to contractors, despite the local 18% unemployment rate.

The council still hopes to carry out its plan in conjunction with the Merci Endowment Fund, an organization created by a wealthy Parisian family who had made their fortune in high-end children’s clothing and wanted to give back.

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

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

“They will help revitalize the village.

The Merci project offered to handpick asylum seekers, to recruit for skills but also a desire to live in the countryside. Next, the Cohens promise to develop a comprehensive program to help them assimilate, with local French classes and apartments in renovated buildings.

The plan also included new community spaces and training programs for all – locals and refugees alike – which most excited Ms Inderbitzin, the local council champion for the project and a teacher at the local college.

The city has more than 50 clubs and nonprofits, including one that runs the local cinema and another that delivers food to starving families in the city.

“Social development for all is in Callac’s genes,” said Ms. Inderbitzin. “It’s a virtuous circle. They could bring a lot of energy, culture, youth.

Not everyone is so excited at the prospect. A petition launched by three residents opposed to the project has more than 10,000 signatures, many of them from far beyond Callac.

But even in the city, some are grumbling about the lack of consultation or transparency. They fear that Callac will lose its Frenchness and trade its small-town tranquility for big-city problems. Others wonder about the motives of a wealthy Parisian family who interferes in their rural home.

“We are not lab rats. We are not here for them to experiment,” said Danielle Le Men, a retired teacher from the city who is starting a community group to stop the project, which she says will only bring “Islam radical” to the community.

Catching wind of the protest, the right-wing anti-immigrant Reconquête party, led by ousted presidential candidate Éric Zemmour, staged a protest in September, warning that the project would bring dangerous insecurity and complaining that it would introduce shops halal and girls in mind. scarves.

A block away, counter-protesters thronged the main square. “To the fascists waving the red banner of a hypothetical replacement,” Murielle Lepvraud, a local politician from the radical leftist France Insoumise party, told the crowd, “I answer, yes, your ideas will soon be replaced.”

More than 100 riot police wielding shields kept the groups at bay.

Even many who lived through Callac’s decline are still unconvinced.

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

There was a time, she says, when she offered billiards and karaoke and left the taps running late. But with the departure of the city’s young people, it recalibrated its closing time to match the schedule of its remaining clientele – 8 p.m.

“Why would we give jobs to foreigners?” she says. “We should help the people here first.”

Standing in the street outside his small bar, which doubles as a cluttered antique shop, his neighbor, Paul Le Contellac, assessed the proposition from another angle.

Her uncle married a refugee who had fled Spain with her family during the civil war and found refuge in this village. Later, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany, her grandmother hosted resistance fighters in her attic.

“It’s a city that has always welcomed refugees,” said Mr. Le Contellac. “Callac isn’t ugly, but it isn’t pretty either. He needs new energy.

Although immigration has the potential to do so, the issue remains hotly contested, even though the migration crisis has been eased by the pandemic.

Today, as the pandemic seems to be fading, the number of asylum seekers arriving in France is on the rise again, threatening to return volatility to the issue.

Since the height of the migration crisis several years ago, the government of President Emmanuel Macron has tried to share the difference on its immigration policy.

On the one hand, it aimed to deter asylum seekers by strengthening the border police and reducing certain state services.

On the other hand, for those who are accepted as refugees, it has invested resources in French courses and employment programs to facilitate their integration.

The government has also tried to disperse asylum seekers outside Paris, where services are strained, housing is hard to come by 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 by social and economic problems, to “zones rural areas, which are losing people”.

The system is very similar to the one already in place in Callac which, paradoxically, has been welcoming refugee families since 2015, around forty people currently, with little or no notice, like many small French towns.

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

Kurds who have escaped al-Qaeda in Syria have felt nothing but welcome, posting photos of community meals and celebrations to which they have been invited on their mobile phones. But the benefits of village hospitality are outweighed by the logistics of living in the countryside without a car. Training, medical appointments, even regular French lessons are all far away.

When he hears of the plan to offer services and an enveloping school in Callac, Mr. Ebrahim smiles broadly. “Then we could go to French classes every day,” he said.

Callac may now prove to be a testing ground for whether a more structured approach can work and whether divisions can be overcome.

“It has become a matter of French politics,” says Sylvie Lagrue, a local volunteer who drives refugees to doctor’s appointments and helps them set up their internet. “Now everyone hopes it will calm down and we will continue the program.”

Although the project still has no official budget, timetable or target number of asylum seekers to be resettled, the city council is nonetheless tiptoeing ahead.

He recently bought a huge abandoned stone school, rising like a ghost in the middle of the city, and announced that he planned to turn it into the “heart” of the project – complete with a refugee reception area, as well as a community nursery and co-working space.

The Merci fund has already bought the building where the city’s last bookstore closed in August. She now plans to reopen the store for the community, while housing a first family of asylum seekers in the apartment above.

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