- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 10, 2002

SAVIGNAC-DE-MIREMONT, France Jean-Louis is a carpenter, perhaps more a "menuisier" which is nearer the English "cabinetmaker." But I've never known him to make a cabinet. Doors and windows are his specialty.
When we met, I was immediately taken by his twinkling eyes and ironic informality. We get on well, and he has made us several doors and windows from local chestnut wood. They fit snugly into the openings I made in the yard-thick stone walls of the old farmhouse we bought a little more than 20 years ago.
Jean-Louis has a strong sense of community. Twenty years ago, he was a local councilor in the next village (it still has a primary school and a tiny shop, which is more than ours does). He was groomed to succeed the former mayor of long standing, a cultured gentleman of great courtesy and gentle, kind humor. At last year's local elections, the transition was seamless. Jean-Louis has officially retired but will still put together a quick window frame for a favored client.
It was from him that I learned of the death of Norbert.
Norbert was a young farmer struggling to make ends meet on the land he inherited when his father died. Three years ago he married Agnes, the eldest daughter from a neighboring farm, a family we know well. We met Norbert a couple of times before he whisked Agnes off to his farm a couple of miles away. He was a tall, lankily powerful young man with an intense gleam to his close-set, near-black eyes. Less than a year later, we attended the christening of Yannick, the bouncing baby boy Agnes bore him.
Like all smallholders in the region, Norbert knew he was in for a tough life. In today's France, to qualify for the subsidies awarded to the farming industry, you need an agricultural studies diploma. It's not enough to be born into farming or to have no choice about trying to earn a living from your land.
After poor school results, Norbert attended agricultural college for a couple of years, time his father begrudged because it took him away from the land. When the lad failed to obtain his diploma, his father refused to let him spend more time trying again.
"I know how to farm," Norbert used to tell me. "I know what to plant and when, and what fertilizers to use. But they made me sit through accountancy classes and lectures in business management. I didn't understand a thing. And as for the English lessons what the hell was the point?"
No qualification means no subsidy. And without it, a smallholder in France today cannot keep home and family together.
So Norbert got a job doing the other thing he was good at: repairing tractors. His salary meant he, Agnes and baby Yannick could live more comfortably. But he spent every available moment evenings, predawn hours, all weekend every weekend manning the farm, too, and was soon exhausted. The bills kept piling up and he could not see a way out.
He did what many small farmers do, faced with debt, falling farm produce prices, drought and increasingly weighty sanitary regulations: In despair, he took to the bottle.
As my carpenter friend Jean-Louis tells it, it was a classic case. When Norbert didn't show up at the farmhouse for supper, Agnes wasn't worried: He was often on the land well into the night.
But by 10:30 she was alarmed. She telephoned around, including to Jean-Louis. A neighbor had seen Norbert in some woodland adjoining his fields. Jean-Louis quietly got a party together.
It was 1:30 in the morning when he found Norbert, as he expected: hanging by the neck from a rope slung over a high oak-tree branch.
The small farmer in France brings in an average of 5,000 to 6,000 euros a year equal to roughly the same amount in U.S. dollars. Anything else he earns takes him off the land. If his wife works, that, too, takes her off the land, though it may be worth it. But with 1-year-old Yannick at home, this wasn't an option for Agnes.
France's national suicide rate is nearly three per 1,000 persons age 16 years and older. Among farmers, it's nearly four times that. This doesn't include elderly farmers, who, even if everyone knows they've killed themselves, are invariably written off as dying of "natural causes" or "senile accidents," easing insurance and inheritance claims.
Hanging and shooting are the preferred methods. Every farmer has a gun, which he can, with little difficulty, point at his head, or a rope and a stout beam or branch to sling it over.
France is only just waking up to the desperate plight of its smallholders. A recent report describes the typical victim: "Aged about forty, perhaps married (being married makes no difference statistically), often plagued by debt, alcohol and relational difficulties. Isolation is a serious problem. The men say nothing about their problems. They drink."
The subject has been a national taboo for too long. Public awareness is just beginning to be aroused. But for Agnes and little Yannick, it's already too late.

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