In retrospect, I understand why my French friends gave me a weird look when I told them I’d been to Béziers one weekend this winter. Unless you’re going in August for the Feria de Béziers, the bullfighting festival, people don’t really go to Béziers.
The town sits on a bluff over the Orb River in France’s poorest region, the Languedoc-Roussillon, about an hour west of where I’d been living, in Montpellier. With only 70,000 residents, Béziers is much smaller than Montpellier — and also much worse off. Its population declined steadily from the mid-’70s until about five or six years ago, when the growth of the rest of the Languedoc-Roussillon — which has twice the growth rate as everywhere else in France — finally trickled down to Béziers.
But its years of population decline still show. When some friends and I drove into the city center at lunchtime, it was eerily quiet. The streets were empty and it seemed like the shops were all closed, even the brasseries. My wife and I had never been anywhere in France where you couldn’t find a café or a glass of wine at midday, and we’d planned on having both with lunch.
But seeing nowhere to get them, we decided to hold off on drinks and head straight for the city’s main attraction, the thirteenth-century Béziers Cathedral.
Part of what drew me to Béziers, I confess, was its troubled history. Like any ancient city, horrible things have happened there. But the worst by far was the massacre of 1209. Back then, Béziers was a stronghold of Catharism, which the Catholic Church considered a heresy. The Pope declared a crusade to eliminate it, and nobleman from the north of France assembled a crusader army and headed for Béziers and the Languedoc.
Once the crusaders were encamped outside the city, there was a debate about how to tell the faithful Catholics from the heretical Cathars once the fighting began. According to legend, the commander said, “Kill them all, let God sort them out,” or something close to it. And that’s exactly what they did.
The residents of Béziers, Catholics and Cathars alike, took refuge in the city’s churches, including the cathedral of Saint Nazaire (now Béziers Cathedral). The crusaders barred the doors of the church and set it on fire, and everyone inside burned to death. Then, they sacked and burned the city, slaughtering everyone else. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
When we got to the cathedral it was closed. A handwritten sign on the door said it would open at 2 p.m. so we decided to try the nearby Church of the Madeleine. It was also closed, due to the cold weather. We then found the very old and neglected Saint-Aphrodise Church nearby, which appeared to be crumbling. Large steel braces held up the exterior walls, and it looked like it hadn’t been open for a very long time.
By then it was 2 p.m. and we went back to the cathedral, assuming it would be open. It wasn’t. A few other people were standing around in the cold waiting for someone to open the doors. None of them knew why the church was closed. While the others took in the scenic view of the Orb and the surrounding countryside, I wandered around to the other side of the church in search of another entrance, but instead stumbled upon the fifteenth-century cloisters. If we can’t get into the cathedral, I thought, at least we can enjoy this. I waved them over and we went in.
One advantage of living in a less-traveled corner of France is that you can easily visit some of the oldest sites in the country without fighting big crowds. To tour the Languedoc-Roussillon, especially in the off-season, is generally to be one of a small handful of visitors at a medieval church or a Roman ruin. Sometimes, you’re the only person there.
The most surprising thing about these places, though, is not that they are off the beaten path but that so many of them have been neglected and vandalized. Throughout southern France, gravel parking lots and faded plaques are sometimes the only markers you’ll see of an ancient church or monument, many of which are defaced with graffiti and crumbling to pieces.
That’s what we found in the cloisters of Béziers Cathedral. The building dates from the thirteenth century and sits on the ruins of the church that was destroyed in the massacre of 1209. Fragments of the original church are embedded in the walls of the cloisters, while others are unceremoniously stacked in the corners and leaning against walls.
Most of these artifacts, along with the stones, columns, and arches of the cloisters themselves, have been horribly vandalized. Graffiti isn’t spray-painted here like it is everywhere else in Béziers, it’s scratched into the stones. That’s how I know “R.S.” was standing in front of a particular medieval tablet there on March 19, 2011.
Looking around, it wasn’t hard to see how this happened. A bunch of teenagers and vagrants were in there, smoking cigarettes and staring at us. They weren’t there for the architecture or the history; they were there because it was a place to hang out and mess around with shit.
Appalled and confused, we decided to forget about the cathedral and find Béziers’ Roman arena. We followed signs for it down a steep set of stairs, past a door that read “attention, chien méchant” (vicious dog), and wandered into Saint-Jacques, which turns out is a pretty rough neighborhood.
But we weren’t about to give up on the Roman arena just because the streets suddenly seemed dirty and menacing. We kept following signs for the arène romaine and soon realized they were leading us in a circle. The arena was right next to us, on the other side of some dilapidated apartment buildings, but there was no apparent entrance.
Determined to find a way in, we walked down a small hill and around a corner, where we found several haphazardly parked police cars and a group of cops engaged in lively discussion with some neighborhood residents. At that point we all decided it would be best to move along, away from whatever trouble was brewing in Saint-Jacques that day.
After a block or so, I noticed a man following us. When I turned around to get a look at him, he pretended to go into a building, slowly putting his hand on the nearest door. When I looked back a few seconds later, he was still following us.
I told the others what was going on and we decided to just get out of Béziers altogether. The churches were all closed, and the Roman arena, if it were really there, was buried in a ghetto and lost to history.
In America, when we think of our rust belt cities — Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland — we think of steel mills and factories closing down in the ‘70s and ‘80s, leaving behind industrial blight, shuttered buildings, and vacant lots. Having lived in Philadelphia and also further north in the rust belt par excellence of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, I know first-hand that the legacy of those rough decades is alive and well, and that our rust belt continues to struggle with unemployment, crime, and spectacular decay.
But the difference between our rust belt and France’s is that our cities are fighting back against what happened thirty, forty years ago. Photos of Detroit’s decline make for good slideshows, but what’s more revealing is that “>Detroit and a bunch of other rust belt cities are becoming destinations for young entrepreneurs and artists, who see a chance to remake and rebuild and create something new out of the old and broken. While they still face huge problems, these places don’t have a pervasive sense of societal malaise and cultural torpor — they have a renewed sense of energy and determination. They haven’t given up.
That’s not happening in the south of France. There is no movement of aspiring entrepreneurs and artists working to revive urban centers. The brightest and most ambitious young people you meet in the Languedoc-Roussillon want to get out, to Paris or London or somewhere in the United States. You don’t get a sense that anyone is fighting back against decline, but that the next generation is instead languishing in a rust belt of depressed cities.
Béziers is not a microcosm of France. But having lived and traveled in the Languedoc-Roussillon, the ruinous state of that city strikes me as a sign and a symbol of things to come. Although the rest of France has fared better than Béziers, as a whole France seems like a country that’s come out on the wrong side of history, whose future has somehow been snatched away.
Dostoyevsky famously said that you could judge the degree of civilization in a society by entering its prisons, and something similar is true about observing the poorest parts of a country. You can tell something’s gone wrong in France by entering its most troubled cities in its most troubled region, the Languedoc-Roussillon, where pervasive neglect and urban decay confront you at every turn, and headlines about the economic crisis are manifested in the shocking number of homeless and jobless people you meet.
The defaced monuments and crumbling landscapes of cities like Béziers reflect more than just a permissive European attitude about vandalism and graffiti. France’s problems run deeper; their roots are societal and cultural, and top-down government schemes to reverse the country’s waning cultural influence don’t seem to be working. Small cities in France are shrinking, even as the ghettoized suburban banlieues, where youth unemployment tops out at 40 percent, continue to grow.
It’s easy to think of France as a prosperous, cosmopolitan center of culture when you’re strolling the banks of the Seine in Paris or sipping wine in a Bordeaux vineyard. But life down in the Languedoc-Roussillon, where the unemployment rate is highest, doesn’t fit the stereotype.
From this vantage point, France looks more like another sick man of Europe, like its neighbors to the east and west who are teetering on the brink. The difference is that France was always supposed to be one of the economic and cultural cornerstones of Europe, one of the pillars of the continent. But standing on the blighted, empty streets of Béziers, you can’t help but feel like you’re looking at the future of France, and all of Europe, whose citizens are living in the ruins of a waning culture.