There’s been a slight hiatus in posting, as I’ve been dealing with some family health issues. However, this week, I’m delighted to bring you another interview in the Ma Vie Française series. Chris Bockman has been keeping his finger on the pulse of the news in SW France for around 20 years. He gave a talk at our local library recently, during which he regaled us with some of the stories he’s covered during that time. And he’s written a book about it: an ideal Christmas present for Francophiles. Without further ado, over to Chris.
Life on La Lune: Tell us what led you to move to France and, specifically, this part of France.
Chris Bockman: As often in these cases – there was a love connection. Back in the mid-1990s I was in a relationship with a French woman who was teaching at the French school in London and she wanted to move back to France. The south west was her first choice and especially a big regional city; hence Toulouse.
We visited frequently before she made the move. I also found London was too big for me, and before I made the full-time move I learnt that the British news service ITN had bought a TV station in Lyon called Euronews that broadcasts in several languages, giving a European slant to international stories. They offered me some work and paid my travel costs and after a while I said that’s it – it’s time to make the move full-time.
You work as an independent TV news producer, producing footage for the folks back home in the UK. How do you find enough material for your clients?
It’s a good question and one I am asked a lot even today, despite the fact I have been here a while now, which should suggest that I seemed to have made it work. I guess first of all my clients must think I am not entirely incompetent or they would have given up on me a long time ago.
No seriously, with my broadcast journalist background one of the most important skills to have – and I tell this to journalism students in Toulouse to whom I teach a class every year – is both knowing a good story and knowing when to pitch it.
Another thing you need to understand is that at a time when advertising teams in central London take their colleagues and clients out for lunch in Paris, thanks to Eurostar, and get back to the UK in the evening – there is a lot less “wow” factor in having stories from Paris or other European capitals. News editors want to know what is happening outside “in the real world”, for lack of a better expression. This is the same in the U.S. Networks would far rather have a real life story from Texas than your “usual suspects” in New York or Washington.
I know when I arrived in Toulouse – both the BBC and Reuters were keen to have someone in Marseille – they figured there was a lot more news likely to be generated there, between sports, crime and holiday-related stories along the Cote d’Azur.
However, shortly after I arrived full-time in 2001 there was a factory explosion at a fertilizer company called AZF just outside Toulouse, killing around 30 people. It was the worst industrial accident in France since the Second World War. At the time the explosion was less than two weeks after the 9/11 attacks in the United States and immediately there was speculation that it might be terror related. It wasn’t, of course, but it sure convinced news desks back in London and elsewhere that it was good to have a presence in Toulouse and I quickly signed contracts with both the BBC and Reuters news agency TV.
News does not have to be just about serious events or tragedy. There are some quirky stories out there, so many high tech stories and, of course, when an important politician travels – they are a lot more accessible when they are outside of London or Paris, for example. In the end the news editor doesn’t care where the interview takes place; he or she just wants it!
I often say, and only half-jokingly, that the most important part of my day is going to my local café, the art deco “Café de la Concorde”, and reading all the newspapers there. Finding out who is coming to town, what the local stories are, who is an expert in this subject or that, is all crucial and valuable research.
Of all the news stories you’ve covered, which is the quirkiest?
Gosh, how long is a piece of string? As far as I am concerned, the quirkier or more off-beat the better! Those are the kind of stories I enjoy the most because there is so much colour and you feel you are covering new ground. And I have to admit they tend to be the stories that the audience, whether viewer or listener, remembers the most.
I really enjoyed going to Shepherd school. Twice in fact! Since bears were re-introduced into the wild in the Pyrenees, there has been a surge in opportunities for shepherds to look after the flocks, paid for by both the regional councils and central government. The bottom line is if you think it’s a romantic job turn around immediately. It’s tough, but some people are made for the job.
Other quirky stories I have really enjoyed include the landlocked Spanish territory of Llivia. It’s completely surrounded by France as a result of a historic peace treaty that overlooked the town.
Then there is the amazing train station of Canfranc – the Titanic of the Pyrenees as it’s been nicknamed. Think of the hotel in The Shining where Jack Nicholson suffered, well let’s just say writer’s block. If you get a chance go and see it – it’s going through a re-birth – and was once the second biggest train station in Europe after Leipzig’s.
The story of Mohed Altrad, born to an illiterate goat herder in a Bedouin tent in the Syrian Desert and now one of the richest men in France and owner of Montpellier Rugby Club, is pretty amazing too. In fact I am fascinated by border stories.
What’s the most hazardous assignment you’ve undertaken down here?
Hazardous can be interpreted in different ways. When Queen Elizabeth visited France as part of the Entente Cordiale celebrations in 2004, I had to manage a team of about 10 people from the BBC during her visit to Toulouse, making sure the BBC’s coverage worked, of course, while at the same time being the middle man juggling between the Foreign Office and the Prefecture. At the time the BBC, as pool broadcaster, i.e. providing coverage on behalf of everyone, were taking a risk offering me this responsibility, as they didn’t really know how I would do in the circumstances.
The three weeks of rioting that engulfed many troubled estates in cities and towns across France in 2005 wasn’t easy or enjoyable either, but, strangely, one of the more creepy stories involved the hidden treasure supposedly buried around Rennes-le-Chateau in the Aude. The mayor at the time and his sinister coven were not easy to handle. The area is certainly magical, as I say in my book, but in that particular village it’s black magic at work. Covering the foie gras industry from numerous angles as a vegetarian (well, I love lobsters, oysters and scallops) was a little tricky too.
This year, you published a book, Are You the Foie Gras Correspondent? (Another Slow News Day in South West France). Why did you decide to write it? What significance does the title have for you?
I suppose my job really involves writing about things that interest me and sharing them with a larger audience. I like to think – and this may sound slightly presumptuous – that if I find it an interesting tale, others will, too. And many of the stories I covered are timeless, so if you didn’t catch it the first time then you can now with my book.
For example, you don’t have to like rugby to enjoy some of the off-beat angles I have taken on the sport in this corner of France. And just like some people say they don’t understand business news or never read the financial section of a newspaper – there are plenty of business stories out there that have nothing to do with hedge funds or share options that are nevertheless business related. Incidentally, I don’t understand hedge funds either, but I made business news a key part of my portfolio.
My favourite writers are other journalists like Joseph Mitchell and A.J. Liebling and, of course, Hunter S. Thompson. My work is, of course, a pale shadow of what they produced, but I needed a beacon.
I have a couple of friends in the media based in Paris and London who often call me and say, “How is the French peasant doing?” – i.e. me! And it’s true this is clearly a backwater for them and the stories I cover reflect that. But, then, is the high suicide rate among French farmers or the current frustration of the “Gilets Jaunes” less important than a story on the number of rich Chinese tourists flocking to Paris or bilateral talks between Presidents Macron and Putin?
And the book title reflects my thinking. Incidentally, I had just come back from a filming assignment in Lourdes and met a friend in a bar in Toulouse. He had a girlfriend over from London who, on seeing me, said, “I’ve heard about you, you’re the foie gras reporter, aren’t you?” So that’s where I got the idea for the title.
During your talk at the Parisot Library you said that you turned down the opportunity to live in Paris because you want to stay down here. You obviously love it here, but what do you wish you could change about SW France?
Yes. A few years ago, a station, France 24 – the French equivalent to BBC World – offered me a job in Paris, but I had no desire to live there, so we found a middle ground where I could work for them here!
When I first came here, I was delighted by the number of small food shops in small towns, opulent-looking boulangeries, decent restaurants and cafés with real social activity, as opposed to shabby PMU cafes. Sadly, so many town centres have had the life sucked out of them by big out-of-town supermarkets and people living further out – encroaching more on the countryside. And in return town centres, especially in the south, have become pockets of poverty as people on welfare move in.
There is no question the south west feels more crowded than when I first arrived. And the statistics back it up. Far more people are moving to the region each year, some of them migrants from Africa, but the biggest wave of migrants to the Toulouse bassin are Parisians looking for a better quality of life.
I like the idea of one day being able to take the TGV from Toulouse to Paris in three hours, but since that is the profitable route Air France runs this probably won’t happen for decades.
You’ve been in France for nearly two decades. In what ways has France changed in that time?
I was told when Communism fell in the Eastern Bloc, France was the last Socialist state standing. With a job-for-life culture in the civil service, generous unemployment benefit lasting up to three years, big tax reductions for families with three children, and a ban on terrestrial TV running films on Saturdays so as not to compete with cinemas, it certainly felt at times like a State-planned and run country.
Of course, in recent years that is changing and the French are finding it hard to adapt to the idea that the State won’t look after every aspect of their life in future. A more entrepreneurial culture has grown amongst younger people, which is great. On the other hand, there seem to be more people living in sheer poverty or finding it very hard to get by. The average salary in the south west is around 1,500 euros a month. That is incredibly difficult to get by on without some sort of state benefits for housing or child care.
The French love food and I often say the easiest way to fix a meeting with someone who is proving elusive is to invite them to lunch – then they are suddenly very accessible. But, alas, maybe for the reasons I mention above good food has become a luxury here. It didn’t used to be that way.
Overlooking the “B” word (if only we could), what advice would you give to someone contemplating a move from the UK to SW France?
Obviously, speak some French before you arrive or make it one of your absolute priorities when you first arrive. Now, the easiest way is to get a French girlfriend/boyfriend – if you are happily married that might not be wise advice and I won’t be thanked by your spouse.
Remember: simply moving because you think the grass is greener elsewhere is not sound. Obviously if you love cross-country skiing like me you are going to be frustrated living in East Anglia, so it makes more sense to be near the Pyrenees – but “escaping” for the sake of it is a major mistake because what you can’t escape is your mind – that stays with you wherever you are. Make sure you know why you want to move to southern France.
Life on La Lune: Many thanks for joining us today, Chris, and for your fascinating insights.
Connect with Chris
Purchase Chris’s book
Book stores in SW France:
Le Tracteur Savant – Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val
Ombre Blanche – Toulouse
You might also like
Copyright © Chris Bockman, Life on La Lune 2018, all rights reserved.