An informal poll about the Auvergne
A while ago, La Montagne, the main newspaper chain covering central France, had a great idea: interview a group of French tourists arriving in the Auvergne for the first time just as they are getting off the bus, then catch up with them again a few days later to see if their opinions have changed. The question: “What preconceptions do you have about the Auvergne and its inhabitants?”
Jean, a 70-year-old from Paris, said he thinks of Auvergnats as “coal merchants and brasserie owners”. Denise, also from Paris, said “When you say Auvergne to me, I immediately think of volcanoes and the stinginess of the people.” The final word came from Bernard, another Parisian: “For me, the Auvergne means ‘prehistoric’”.
I’ll come back to how their opinions evolved after they had spent a few days touring in the area, but you get the drift. This region in the deep heart of France is not well known even to other French people, and over the centuries a number of clichés have developed in the popular imagination to describe the people who live there.
Here, then, are the top five stereotypes you might expect to encounter when you ask other French people what they think of the Auvergne:
#5 - "Here begins the Auvergne / Here ends France"
The idea that the region and its people somehow exist in an enclave apart from the rest of the country is captured in this well-known sign at St. Thomas Pass...
...but the sign was actually put in place by a group of students in 1942, supposedly as a kind of adolescent act of resistance against Nazi occupation.
It's true enough that for many centuries the Auvergne was seen as a distant, wild region outside the powers of the French king. Gallic tribes fought and won a battle against Julius Caesar and the Roman legions here; the Pope declared the First Crusade to Jerusalem here, partly in the hope that he could bring warring French aristocrats under control. Even as late as 1585, when the notorious Queen Margot was sent into "exile" away from the court in Paris, she was sent to the Auvergne as though it were some distant foreign country.
Given that the first high-speed highway didn’t come here until 1987 – and we’re still waiting on the first TGV train service! – it’s not hard to understand why Servane, a 34-year-old from Caen, told La Montagne that the Auvergne makes her think of mountains and the cheese of Saint Nectaire – but “also of isolation, and someplace difficult to get to – seen from Caen, the Auvergnats are our rural cousins.”
#4 - "It's really industrial and grimy."
This is one of the things my wife remembers most about our first day in Clermont-Ferrand, and I heard almost exactly the same thing from a Parisian friend when she came to work there for the first time. As a stereotype, this applies more to the city of Clermont itself than to the Auvergne, and it’s true that the antique brick smokestacks and old factory buildings remaining on Michelin’s sites look a little like something from a Dickens novel. The drive into town also takes you past major brewery, dairy, and pharmaceutical operations. Once you get past these first impressions, though, Clermont-Ferrand is an extremely appealing mix of medieval and contemporary styles, and Michelin in particular has gone a long way to recreate the look of its factories, turning the Carmes site into a world-class headquarters campus.
#3 - “They mash their words – you can’t understand a thing they’re saying.”
The Auvergne used to be part of the langue d’Oc, and although not many people really speak Occitan now, there are lingering effects on both the vocabulary and accents you’ll hear on the street. Over the years I’ve become especially sensitive to longer, flatter vowels and an extra “g’ sound added to the end of many words (tres bien becomes tres bieng, for example). As it is for a New Yorker who finds it difficult to understand someone from South Carolina, or for a London native who encounters someone from Liverpool, it’s true you’ll hear some deep regional differences in the language. But (as it is in the US and the UK) several decades of the “standard” accents used by television announcers, coupled with the influx of people moving here from other regions of France, have leveled the landscape, and I really think this cliché has largely passed into history.
There’s a lot of fine dining in the Auvergne, from urban temples to haute cuisine to quirky country auberges. There’s a lot of variety in mass-market restaurants, too; French chains like Hippopotamus and Buffalo Grill compete with McDo’s, Subway and KFC. But if you want something authentic and traditional, it’s true that you’re likely to get completely gummed up from the glorious aligots and truffaudes dominated by globs of melted cheese with potatoes, bacon, garlic, and onions. This is the region of St Nectaire, Cantal, the salty Bleu d’Auvergne, and the creamier blue Fourme d’Ambert – all testaments to the quality of the region’s cheese industry.
#2 - "All they eat is cheese"
#1 - “They’re so miserly they hold onto the sunset like it was a gold coin.”
I have some personal experience with this one. My company’s management was famous for many years for requiring employees to turn in the completely used stub of a pencil before a new one could be taken out of the supply cabinet, and we once (briefly) had a published policy of “sobriété bureautique” (“somber IT”) prohibiting the use of color and fancy fonts in Powerpoint documents because all those "extra pixels" took up extra disk space on the servers.
One French website shows a picture of Scrooge McDuck with the caption “a famous Auvergnat.” Many of the most well-worn jokes about the stinginess of Scottish people reappear in France with Auvergnats as the protagonists. This may be the most persistent cliché associated with the region, and like other clichés it is one that has a grain of truth buried under layers of lame prejudice: this is historically a region associated with hard labor, difficult agriculture, and economic distress, so you might expect a certain amount of care about where the money’s going!
The tourists revise their opinions
These are just the most common stereotypes still alive in the imagination of French people who don’t know the Auvergne very well. And I could detect many of them in the interviews by La Montagne mentioned at the top of this story with people just getting off the tour bus in Clermont-Ferrand for the first time.
So when the journalist linked up again with those same tourists, what did they think after a few days of traveling around the Auvergne? Lucie, a 28-year-old from Aveyron, disputes the accusation of miserliness. “There’s no foundation for that,” she says; “Auvergnats are really generous people!” She also came back with a new enthusiasm for the region. “I had no idea there was so much to do,” she says, “so much around nature, science, and geology.”
Bernard, who had a mental image of the region as “prehistoric”, came back saying “I found the people very passionate – they make it clear they love this place.” And Servane, the young woman from Caen, told the reporter “I’m sure you’ll take me for an idiot, but I always associated the Auvergne with the country. I discovered the mountains, and I was really touched by all the little family businesses we saw that have endured for 6 or 7 generations.”
My favorite response, though, comes from Macha and Sergui, a Russian couple who traveled with the group. “What we really loved is that the Auvergne isn’t Disneyland! Nothing here is artificial. It’s authentic – that’s what makes you really want to come back.”
What clichés about France – especially the parts of the country outside Paris – have you encountered? Did you find a grain of truth in any of them? Please join the conversation below! And while you're here, please take a second to click on your preferred social-media buttons to share this article with someone else who's interested in France!