RURAL FRANCE. WHERE TRADITION MEETS THE COMPUTER AGE
Gilbert Gallou no longer spends his spare hours playing cards at the caf'e. He watches television. He doesn't buy pigs from the local farmer or make his own clothes, either. He shops at the supermarket and wears the latest fashions from Paris's Left Bank.
At age 75, he finds that the France of his youth has vanished. A rural, agricultural society has become a prosperous urban, industrial one. The social gulf between landowner and tenant has narrowed. A closed, inward peasant mentality has opened. All the change makes Mr. Gallou beam: ``We live like you Americans.''
That is an exaggeration. A short, squat man full of energy, Gallou lifted his idea from the movies and without ever visiting the United States.
On closer reflection, he realizes that many French traditions are retained in the new society. At noon, stores, schools, and factories close for two hours. Everyone goes home to eat, and Gallou couldn't imagine anything except a five-course lunch.
``You can't just eat a sandwich,'' he says.
How do the French combine custom with the computer age? A few days in Brou offered a glimpse. When Frenchmen talk of ``La France Profonde,'' they refer to such small rural communities.
City-dwellers continue to trace their traditions back to places like Brou. Gallou's daughter, Janine, bought an abandoned farmhouse here in 1966. Although she spends only weekends here, she, just like droves of other Parisians, calls the countryside her ``real home.'' A third of Brou's houses are used as secondary residences.
Brou lies at the crossroads between Normandy and the Ile de France basin, about two hours by road or rail southwest of Paris. A favorable location has made the town a market center since the Middle Ages. In the flat, fertile basin, grain is grown. In the hilly Norman grasslands, livestock is raised.
``At Brou,'' says Mayor Jean Grang'er, ``the animals were traded for grain.''
Brou has survived wrenching economic change. Unlike many rural regions that lost out to cities, enough farmers have modernized and enough industry has been imported to keep the town from becoming a ghost town. Families named Dupont, Durrand, and Duval dominate. As Mr. Grang'er says, ``they are good, straight French names.''
Julien Tessier has a good French name. On a recent Sunday morning, the two-month-old became a member of society the same way Brou children always have: He was baptized. Almost everyone in Brou is Roman Catholic. A few Protestants may live here, but there are no Protestant churches, and no synagogues or mosques.
The priest, the Rev. Ubaldi Rossi, says the people of Brou continue to turn to the church for the major rituals of life. He predicts that young Mr. Tessier will follow catechism courses until his communion and will later be married in the 16th-century church.
Afterward, however, he will rarely attend mass. Ever since citizens favored the Republicans over the Royalist clerics in the French Revolution, the church has become less and less central in the daily life of Brou's residents.
As soon as he started school, Gilbert Gallou learned that King Fran,cois I died in 1515. Julien Tessier probably won't be taught that. Less emphasis is placed on memorization than in the past, says Thalisse Legjars, principal of the local ``college,'' or junior high school.
French children still face a heavy course load. They go to school six days a week, from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and then from 2 to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday afternoons are free. The Ministry of Education in Paris determines their curriculum. No local school board exists. Secondary education remains elitist; only about a quarter of Brou's children attend university.
Until World War II, almost everyone in Brou earned his living from the land, either as a farmer or as a tradesman supplying farmers. Atop the social scale stood the grain merchant, the lawyer, the doctor, and the teacher.
Houses were dark and dingy. Between 1900 and 1945, there was no new construction. ``Everything was prehistoric,'' Gallou says.
But a postwar building boom has made Brou as modern as many small American towns.
As farmhands became factory workers, they moved into modern American-style ranch houses. Whereas houses used to be clustered around the tight knot of the town center, complete with church and small specialized shops, the new houses are spread out on separate plots in a monotonous pattern away from the shops.
While the prewar blacksmiths and furnituremakers are out of business, specialized food merchants continue to prosper in the old town center. Brou boasts several bakeries, delicatessens, and butcher shops.
``People prefer our home quality to the plastic of a supermarket,'' says Michel Gauthier, a butcher.
The continuing presence of small shops hides other changes. Gone is Gallou's old granary, replaced by a bank. Before the war, there were only three banks in Brou. Now there are 12, and even the poorest of residents buys a Renault tractor or Peugeot car on credit.
Industrialists have replaced the lawyers and grain merchants as the local aristocracy. Brou boasts a high-technology company, Latty, a world leader in water- and air-tight seals.
Latty sales manager Bernard Tagon, a native of the northern city of Lille, says the company's executives are all out-of-towners who live in the countryside. ``We have little contact with the people of Brou.''
When Mr. Gallou went to work at age 14, there was little time left over for leisure. ``Everyone worked from 7 a.m. Monday to 12 noon Sunday, 12 hours a day,'' he recalls. ``There was no vacation until 1936, when the government instituted a one-week break.''
Trips to Paris were rare, once every other year or so. An occasional dance on Sunday evening or soccer games Sunday afternoons were the only entertainment. Otherwise the little available free time was spent at the local caf'e.
Before the war, there were some 80 caf'es in town. Business was conducted there. Farmers went to a caf'e to sell their cows to the butcher. Politicians met their supporters. ``We played cards there at every spare moment,'' Gallou says. Today 18 caf'es remain.
``The kids take the car and go to the cinema or the disco in the bigger cities, Chartres or Ch^ateaudun,'' says Patrice Couderoy, owner of Au Bon Coin. ``The adults stay at home and watch TV.''
Gallou regrets the loss of prewar social conviviality. But not too much. He says he prefers television to aimless caf'e conversation. Life is much better now, he says. In the factory, workers have 39-hour weeks and five weeks of vacation guaranteed. They go to Paris often. They travel. Gallou has visited Spain, Italy, and Tunisia, and now he wants to go to the United States.
``We've had a revolution here,'' he says. ``I'm no longer jealous of you Americans.''