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The slow change from French family farm to trendy tourist spot

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The feast began at 1 p.m. At the Roulet farm, 80 guests sat down at one long table under the shade of cypress trees.

The meal opened with a mixed salad. Next, the guests attacked the mutton, finishing off every last bit of the two lambs that had been roasted for the occasion, adding good helpings of beans on the side.

Then came the obligatory cheese platter and the melons, and by the time everyone stepped away from the table to play the French game boules, the clock read 5:30 p.m.

``It's like this every big holiday,'' explains hostess Giselle Roulet. ``It's always been like that, too.''

Well, not quite. Unlike in the past, few farmers crowded around the huge table. Instead, there were Parisians, Belgians, even an American, all enjoying a reposing vacation chez Roulet.

When this was pointed out during one of her few breaks from work, the short, stocky, Mrs. Roulet said in her singsong, heavy Provenal accent, ``Why, yes, many things have changed.''

Many things, indeed. The poor subsistence farmer of one generation ago in this area of southern France has been replaced by a modern businessman-farmer. Like Mrs. Roulet's husband, Andr'e, the French farmer may still dress in a white undershirt. He may grow a traditional thin, black mustache. And he may boast a rotund figure. But while pockets of poverty remain, most farmers echo Mr. Roulet's proud statement: ``I am no longer a peasant.''

The changes came quickly. After World War II, the small village of St. Maximin, just outside Uz`es, about 60 miles from Marseille, looked like a backwater. During the war, the village's economic mainstay -- a phosphate mine -- closed down, never to reopen. From a prewar figure of almost 600, the population fell at the end of the war to a low of 190.

The remaining farmers struggled. As journalist John Ardagh explains in his book, ``France in the 1980s,'' they ``eked out a living from a useless polyculture: a patch of vines for the family's own vinegary wine, a cow or two and some mangy chickens, cabbages struggling to grow on a chalky hillside.''

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