Saint-Eloy-les-Mines in the Auvergne region of France, once a thriving mining town, is now part of this peripheral France that is experiencing geographical and social isolation: a deserted town centre, a lack of healthcare facilities, a poor public transport network and a high unemployment rate. An explosive cocktail of precariousness and rurality.
Pentecost weekend, the town of Saint-Eloy-les-Mines is in turmoil for the Wine Festival. « It’s the only thing that happens during the year », says Laura, 17 years old, elected Miss Montaigut. Denise, who has been in charge of the Miss for 20 years, adjusts the wedding dresses of the four queens who will parade. « You are now public figures! Smile but above all, enjoy! ». Flower floats accompanied by a musical parade prepare to parade down the city’s main street, which is usually deserted. Marie-Thérèse Sikora, a 74-year-old ball of energy and mayor of the city for 12 years, announces on the microphone, in a shrill voice, the various associations present: the brotherhood of the fine Eloysian palaces, the Majortwirl Art and Dance Club of Saint-Eloy and the music group La Banda’mi. Despite the gloomy weather, the Limoges majorettes dressed in their feathered costumes set with rhinestones made the trip, under the enchanted gaze of the spectators. On the last flowered float were the four miss of the region, smiling despite the low temperatures for the season. « The Fête des vins has been in existence for 57 years and we are proud to be able to entertain a large audience during this family and friendly weekend, » explains the mayor. Even if the festival used to bring together the biggest stars of yesteryear such as Dalida or Frédéric François, it still offers free cover band concerts for the population.
Behind the window where her collections of thimbles and wax dolls are displayed, Claudine watches the show unfold before her eyes, her son Laurent, 35 years old, sitting next to her. « I’ve been living in the centre of Saint-Eloy for 40 years. The shops are disappearing little by little. Before, there used to be about 40 cafés in this street, where the miners used to meet after work. Today, there are no more than 5 of them left ». Laurent has been a shopkeeper and temporary employee at Rockwool for a year and a half. « In any case, they no longer have permanent contracts. I am already satisfied with my temporary contract ». The Rockwool plant that produces rock wool was set up in 1980 in Saint-Eloy-les-Mines following the closure of the last coal mine. Today, with its 575 employees, it is the largest job provider in the sector. Its red and white chimney, visible from anywhere in the city, runs at full speed, 24 hours a day without ever quitting.
The procession is coming to an end and everyone is heading towards the gourmet village where a multitude of French wine merchants have gathered for the occasion. Claude, 61 years old, is walking around and meets his former partner, Pascale, at the Luna Park. He receives the RSA (active solidarity income): 450€. He lives for the moment in a small unhealthy house where the walls are full of water. « I don’t have a car, my only means of transport is walking. I am used to walking 10km/day. Buses are becoming increasingly rare here. It’s a bit of a hassle to be without a car, but I have to make do with it. « The lights from the slot machine illuminate this former loving couple. Over his shoulder, Claude casts furtive glances at Pascale’s daughter Alicia. « I know we had a forbidden love that was not accepted by those around us, but I really loved Alicia for seven years. It was an impossible love but we shared the same passion, karaoke and evening entertainment. Since it’s over, I don’t see the point of getting up in the morning anymore. All I have left is Chipie, my dog, she’s the queen of the house. She has never betrayed me ».
Alain, 64 years old, accosts Claude and offers him a glass of red wine. Claude declines the invitation because he doesn’t drink alcohol. Alain, for his part, has fallen in since the death of his wife. He tries as best he can to find meaning in his life but there is a kind of void. It is Anne-Elisabeth from Médecins du Monde who reminds him of his appointments with the psychiatrist. « Anne-Elisabeth, she never let go of me ». The Médecins du Monde branch in the city centre is where the RESCORDA (Réseau de Santé et de Coordination d’Appui en milieu rural) programme is set up. Its aim is to facilitate access to healthcare for the population in rural areas.
In front of Johnny’s cover band, Janine is fist bound on « Mourir d’amour enchainé ». She dances, smiles and remembers us: « You were at the Bancal party a month ago ». Far from the past image of the region, local initiatives are coming to life such as this alternative bar which celebrated its 2 years anniversary on the weekend of the ascension. Located not far from the Rockwool factory, it helps to recreate links between the different populations, support local craftsmen, and organise board game evenings.
The Saint-Eloy-les-Mines Wine Festival is this meeting place where a whole host of people get together for a long weekend. What interests us, but is often overlooked, are these intense life stories.
Work in progress…