Asylum Seekers Give New Life to French Village
Some of its inhabitants say it feels like Chambon-le-Chateau is located at the end of the world: buffeted by the ferocious winds high in the Massif Central, frigid in winter and a long drive from the nearest town with no public transport.
But the village in the central Lozere region, France's most thinly-populated, has proven an unlikely success story in providing a welcoming home to asylum seekers whose presence has lifted the community.
Threatened by a rural exodus, Chambon-le-Chateau has encouraged asylum seekers to settle there for the last decade and a half -- they now make up 20 percent of its 300-strong population.
It's a story that bucks the trend in much of France, where there is not enough accommodation to host asylum seekers and anti-immigrant sentiment can ride high, with the ultra-right National Rally (RN) a major political force.
On a recent misty morning, a stream of parents -- Syrian, Sudanese or Ivorian, some of the mums draped in shimmering African fabrics -- walked down to the village school, leading their youngsters by the hand, while French parents dropped theirs off by car.
The two groups had little contact, but once inside the playground their children eagerly mingled and played ahead of lessons.
In a region where many classes had to shut due to people moving to the cities, the school in Chambon-le-Chateau boasts four classes, including one tailored to non-native French speakers who number 16, out of a total of 46 pupils.
"For my son who is eight years old, it is truly a chance to meet children from other countries," said local resident Valerie, who asked for her full name not to be published.
Teacher Marie-Amelie Papon said that the children mixed well.
She has 19 pupils, including 11 foreigners from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Sudan and Syria in her primary school class.
"The organization is sometimes heavy but it is normally stimulating for me," she told Agence France Presse.
Village mayor Michel Nouvel, 62, said that the reception center managed by NGO France Terre d'Asile (France Territory for Asylum), which supports asylum seekers, was first opened "when the village was economically devastated by the closure of a dairy factory."
The area had already hosted a professional training center for 80 youths who had dropped out of society, he said.
"We had the knowhow about how to host people in difficulty and we wanted to continue," he added.
Such attitudes are not guaranteed in France where residents and local officials are sometimes strongly opposed to the opening of centers for asylum seekers.
France, along with Germany, receives the most applications from asylum seekers in the European Union, with 110,500 initial demands in 2018, according to Eurostat.
There is consequently a lack of accommodation places for them and many live in informal tent camps, notably in the region around Paris, which can lead to social tensions.
"Thanks to the presence of the reception center, which hosts some 50 people, the school survived, the post office was kept going and we kept jobs as well as a pharmacy and a doctor," the mayor said.
He added that the asylum seekers' presence brought in around 20,000 euros ($22,300) a year to the municipality through the rental of public accommodation to the NGO to house the migrant families.
Private owners also benefit by renting out lodgings too.