Reuter - In the abandoned hamlet of Pardailhan, in south central France, 89 Christian townsmen from Paris have founded an Israeli-style kibbutz.
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Background: Reuter - In the abandoned hamlet of Pardailhan, in south central France, 89 Christian townsmen from Paris have founded an Israeli-style kibbutz.
It is the first in France, and perhaps the first anywhere in the world outside of Israel.
The Pardailhan community, which occupies a high plateau in Languedoc, 25 miles northwest of Beziers, is primarily the result of M. Vincent Thibout's 18 months' experience on the Sdeh Elishu Emeek Beth Shean kibbutz, on the Israeli-Jordanese frontier three years ago.
The then 33-year-old metallurgical engineer and his wife, Therese, were highly impressed by the kibbutz farmers' way of life, their mentality and their spirit.
Convinced that the "kibbutz way of life, plus Judaism, offered an answer to man's moral and material problems", Thibout became a convert to Judaism and had his kibbutz-born son, Israel, circumcised. The Thibouts resolved to interest their friends and neighbours in creating a kibbutz in an abandoned rural area of France.
Back home in the crowded Faubourg Saint Antoine quarter on the Right Bank of the Seine, energetic, persuasive Thibout spoke enthusiastically about the healthy, happy way of life on a kibbutz.
His first supporter was his 68-year-old great uncle, M. Abel Thibout, who owned land in a Paris suburb where he gave everything from roses to leaks. Abel is the dean of the Pardailhan kibbutz, and the only member with a professional knowledge of farming.
All but two of the 89 volunteers are under 40 years of age. Their average age is 31. What led these Parisians to join Thibout is their contention that "it is impossible to live decently, intelligently, spiritually in the money-mad, physically unhealthy, overcrowded atmosphere of Paris.
So while French peasants continue to migrate to the towns, these townsmen decided to head for the country.
It proved surprisingly difficult to find a "dead village" where they could establish their kibbutz. Ministries and Prefectures were not accustomed to requests for abandoned villages from Parisians. Pardailhan was "prospected" by kibbutz leaders and enthusiastically recommended, although the "prospectors" were snowbound there for two days.
The 89 Parisians then pooled their resources. The total came to 200,000 new francs (about GBP14,285 sterling).
Half a dozen elderly peasants in the village rubbed their eyes unbelievingly when they saw the Parisians drive up in trucks one wintry day last year and begin to set up house.
"You are mad. The climate here is severe, the soil unfertile. Everyone except us oldtimers has abandoned Pardailhan and gone to the city. In three months, you will be bankrupt," the peasants told them.
Almost a year has passed, and the "peasants" from Paris are still there, more optimistic than ever, but dangerously short of capital.
With their modest capital, the Pardailhan community were able to rent, but not to buy, about 900 acres of unfertile rock-strewn land, rich in pebbles and partially covered by forests of chestnut trees. In all, there were 375 acres which could be farmed.
In eight months, the townsmen, with little idea of farming, had cleared 185 acres and planted potatoes, barley, beans and other crops on 125 of these acres.
Local inhabitants sadly shook their heads and warned the Parisians against removing so many stones and pebbles. "Do not do that," they said, "those pebbles and rocks provide shade for the soil and help crops to grow."
But the proof lies in results and the kibbutz harvested a bumper potato crop which won the admiration of local agronomists.
Symbolically, a young lad, who had never seen a tractor nine months ago, won second prize at the Montpellier farm fair in a vehicle-operating contest.
In half a year, the kibbutz was self-sufficient in green vegetables, salads, tomatoes, carrots, and the like.
Encouraged by these initial successes, the community persuaded the Department of Water and Forests to "land" them 340 acres of much richer land, 18 miles to the north, but lying at 3,000 feet above sea level. Small groups of particularly robust pioneers, living in a log cabin, in wretched weather conditions, have already cleared 200 acres of the Grand Sagne plot for cultivation - land which was previously covered quite literally by a forest of man-size broom.
This spring, the kibbutz has high hopes of acquiring a herd of 250 to 300 sheep, 25 cows and perhaps a few goats.
The kibbutz has been remarkably successful, too, in its efforts to rear poultry. With no knowledge of raising chickens, M. Hughes Fert, in his early twenties and trained to be a watch repairer, has developed a chicken farm with 7,000 chickens. The aim is to make the total 100,000.
The Pardailhan kibbutz is, as far as possible, a carbon copy of an Israeli kibbutz. Members have no money of their own in their pockets. Every week, each member presents a written list of articles which he personally needs.
Every evening, the chiefs of different work groups such as the kitchen, poultry farm, sewing shop, school, nursery, garden and so on assemble in the simple kibbutz office and ask for the allocation of two or three workers or the purchase of electric bulbs or textbooks, for the next day.
As on an Israeli kibbutz, the babies - there are nine of them at Pardailhan - live in the kibbutz nursery day and night. For an hour in the evening and on Sunday afternoons, the parents take their babies home to play with them.
Pardailhan's living conditions are still grim. An icy north wind howls through unheated houses. There is no running water supply or toilet facilities in the primitive stone peasant dwellings, and the hamlet has no sewerage system.
Apart from M. Vincent Thibout, none of the Pardailhan pioneers has become a convert to Judaism. Nor are they practising Catholics. Of Protestant doctrines, they profess complete ignorance.
They say that they seek simply to live according to the Ten Commandments, especially respecting the concept of loving one's neighbour.
Idealistic yet practical, the members of the kibbutz appear to wish to combine "the best features of the Jewish and Christian religions."
As a local priest put it, "they occupy for the moment a no-man's land between Christianity and Judaism."
Although they are unlikely to convert many fellow Frenchmen to their religious outlook, the Pardailhan kibbutz may show the way to rational exploitation of France's vast areas of abandoned farm land.