Sunday morning, early. My phone rings. 'How does it feel,' inquires a familiar voice, 'to live in a country where the smell of manure is enshrined in law?' Truth be told, I'm not entirely sure that the word she used was manure, but let us give the daughter the benefit of the doubt. It was early after all, and she was, happily, more alert than her father: driving to work on an icy road in East Ayrshire, while I was in bed in south-west France with a pot of coffee and a good novel.
To her credit, the daughter is assiduous about keeping in regular touch with her parents who, thanks to a mutual fondness for Philip Larkin, are sometimes referred to as The Old Fools. She is one of those millennials who is pathologically incapable of doing anything – driving, cooking, changing a nappy – without simultaneously gassing into a mobile phone. She invariably gives us a call if she has anything of even marginal interest to convey. On this occasion, it was a report she'd heard on the morning news. I struggle to guess whether it had caught her notice because it was about France, or about chickens (of which she has lately become an owner), but it had plainly tickled her.
The story was that France's upper House, the Senate, had just endorsed into law a bill from the Assemblée Nationale to provide statutory judicial protection for the 'sensory heritage' of the French countryside. It will be for regional authorities to define, and good luck to them, precisely what constitutes the 'sensory heritage' of la France profonde but the legislation is specific that what it has in mind as the 'sounds and smells' of rural France.
The star of this story is the late Maurice, a rooster from Rochefort on the Ile d'Oléron. Maurice fell fowl, sorry foul, of the full majesty of French law in 2019, when he was the subject of a celebrated court case brought by the neighbours of his owner, Corinne Fessau. They had complained about his habit of giving a full-throated welcome to the dawn, which they regarded as noise pollution. The court not only threw out their case, but ordered them to pay Mme Fessau €1,000 in damages.
As you may already have guessed, Mme Fessau has lived on the Ile since forever, while the complainants were holiday home owners who visited now and again. Maurice has since ascended to the great poule au pot in the sky, but he remains emblematic of a string of such causes célèbre. Newcomers to country life have lodged objections, some backed by legal action, to the bellow of amorous bullfrogs in a pond, the seamless buzz of cicadas, the chatter of ducks in a garden, early morning church bells (Sonnez les matines, Frère Jacques!), and the pong left by incontinent sheep.
Whereupon, a frivolous thought crossed your correspondent's mind, not in itself a rare event. Might the law be extended, one wondered, to protect the noises and smells of urban France? Probably not. The seductive aroma of the boulangerie, perhaps: the happy chatter of the marketplace, the little jazz bands that busk in the squares of the old town. But most of the smells and sounds here in Montpellier might be generously described as uncherishable, especially now that the restaurant kitchens are in lockdown and their magical aromas have ceased to perfume the streets.
There is instead the boggy miasma of French drainage, a science that is not the Republic's highest accomplishment. There is the pungency of the inviolable Gallic belief that every street corner is a urinal. There is the sour-fat reek of the 'taco' stalls so beloved of settlers from further around the Mediterranean. There is the industrial thump of youths with weapons-grade car hi-fis; the doodlebug drone of electric scooters; the clatter-bang of skateboards; the vapid gabble of students into their phones. And there are the dogs, large and small, that the French insist on taking and emptying everywhere they go, punctuating urban life with both foul stinks and sudden cacophony. A special mention here for the gerbil-sized yap across from our flats, which yelps from morning to night, and which I dream of drop-kicking into the River Lez. Conserve that lot in law, why don't you.
But, of course, there is a serious side as well to the new law, one that is all too familiar to anyone who loves rural, especially Highland, Scotland. La France profonde, like the countryside of so many developed nations, is dying from a two-way traffic. Native populations, especially the young and educated, flock to the cities as worthwhile career opportunities in agriculture, viticulture and fishing disappear. In the hollowed-out communities left behind, properties swiftly become knock-down in both fabric and price, attracting an inflow of townies – not to mention, British expats – with dreams of doing up a rustic haven for weekends and holidays. They seek a golden rural idyll: one that rarely involves ancient sputtering tractors, noxious cowpats or shrieking geese.
Say what you like about the French, but no nation is faster off the mark when it perceives the essence of its national heritage, the patrimoine, to be under threat. The traditional small-unit cultivation that shaped the sights, sounds and smells of the French countryside may be gone beyond retrieval. But that is not seen as any sort of persuasive reason to abandon the distinctive ambience of the communities and lifestyles that it supported.
And so, in the wake of Maurice's triumph before the judiciary, pressure mounted for statutory intervention to protect authentic rural ways from the philistinism of arrivistes in waxed jackets and new wellies. An MP from Lozère, Pierre Morel-à-L'Huissier, introduced the snappily-titled 'Law Protecting the Sensory Heritage of the French Countryside' in the Assemblée Nationale, where it gained the backing of Rural Affairs Minister Joël Giraud. Now it has been approved by the Senate, and has become law.
Quite how effective it will be is another matter. The concept of 'sensory heritage' is new to French law and not entirely hard to mock. But proponents have patiently insisted that the whiffs and dins of the farmyard mark a significant border between urban and rural life. The main mechanism for enforcing their protection will be a new formal justification for local mayors to tell incomers not to be so damned silly, and to block any lawsuits if they persist.
So, to return to the initial question, how it feels is mildly comforting that the state here has the aesthetic sensitivity to think that things like sounds and smells are worthy of legislative protection. What it doesn't solve, of course, are the economic forces that exposed rural communities in the first place to depopulation and the influx of neo-rurals. The best the new law can do is to provide incomers with a clearer rubric for how they are expected to behave, and to forewarn them that they will be need to adapt their ways to those of the countryside rather than expect the opposite to happen. They're just going to have to try harder not to tread in the sensory heritage.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster