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Truck keeps French villages in high spirits

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Sebastien Cherrier (centre) serves up drinks out of his bar on wheels in Villequiers in central France. The migration of people to bigger cities for work has led to the closure of thousands of rural bistros.

Villequiers, France

THE traditional French cafe where people of all stripes have customarily met is becoming a rare sight in many villages, but a man with a van - and a liquor licence - is making the rounds to help revive rural socialising.

On a brisk recent Friday, Sebastien Cherrier, a 44-year-old former educational caseworker, was serving drinks and bonhomie from the back of his "Bar Truck" in Villequiers, population 483.

More than a dozen patrons were gathered under the pop-up gazebo installed behind the van's open back doors, where Mr Cherrier sat behind a customised oak counter donated by a woodworker.

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Villequiers mayor Pascal Mereau, who is a teacher in the village, said: "The last cafe here closed a little over a year ago, but as recently as 1985, we still had four. All we have left is one business that's a grocer, bar and guest room."

He and other residents see Mr Cherrier's initiative as a chance to reknit a civil fabric that has been fraying as more people leave for bigger cities, prompting businesses to close and public services to dwindle.

The trend has contributed to a growing rift between Paris and other prosperous urban or tourist centres on the one side, and those in the picturesque-yet-increasingly-isolated countryside on the other.

The issue has received scrutiny in recent months during a revolt by "yellow vest" demonstrators in rural and small-town France, who blocked roads nation-wide in a protest against President Emmanuel Macron.

France had some 200,000 cafes in 1960, often serving as the social centre of gravity for communities and neighbourhoods around the country.

By 2015, that number had fallen to just 36,000, with most closures in rural areas, said a 2017 report from the France Boissons industry body and the CREDOC consumer studies agency.

Oliver, a craftsman in his 50s in Villequiers, said: "Before, cafes let you to meet people. I had to come to the Bar Truck to really get to know my neighbours. Until now it was just 'Good morning' or 'Good night'."

With his shaved head, tattoos and imposing beard, Mr Cherrier began holding court several weeks ago from a modified Renault van dubbed C'est l'Occaz, or "Now's the Time", painted on the side.

His Facebook page lets people know which town he will next be parked.

"The idea had been bouncing around in my head for a while. I go through a lot of villages around the Sancerre region (in central France), and I was appalled at the number of businesses that have closed, especially the bistros.

"Now it's all over, they have all closed. People are stuck in front of their TVs, their tablets and their phones. There are no more personal exchanges - it's disastrous."

He said he wasn't surprised that the "yellow vest" protests led to violent clashes in Paris and other cities since they erupted in mid-November.

"You can't be surprised that things are going badly. We don't have any more places to go and talk after a day of work," he said. AFP