A French farmer drives his tractor in Congrier, France, February 15, 2020. Congrier, 900 inhabitants, is one of the first villages selected for the “1,000 cafes” project launched in France to save cafes in small villages in order to breathe life back in the community. Picture taken February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe(REUTERS)

Thomas Sureau and his partner Lisa Buisine took possession of the keys to an abandoned cafe in the village of Congrier faced with the task of breathing life back into a small corner of La France Oubliee, or Forgotten France.

The former owners of the Chene Vert, who also sold newspapers and cigarettes, rolled down the shutters for the last time in December 2018, leaving the village of 900 people without a central meeting point.

The decline in Congrier’s fortunes is mirrored in small towns and villages across rural France where empty properties and vacant storefronts tell of the slow decay of local businesses.

Sureau and Buisine were handpicked by the company SOS which specialises in social projects and targets re-opening 100 cafes this year in struggling villages.

“We won’t just be running a cafe,” Buisine said, surrounded by boxes in the house the local mayor has given them rent-free for six months as they seek to revive the cafe that was once the social heartbeat of the village.

A view shows a street in Congrier, France, February 15, 2020. Congrier, 900 inhabitants, is one of the first villages selected for the "1,000 cafes" project launched in France to save cafes in small villages in order to breathe life back in the community. Picture taken February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A view shows a street in Congrier, France, February 15, 2020. Congrier, 900 inhabitants, is one of the first villages selected for the “1,000 cafes” project launched in France to save cafes in small villages in order to breathe life back in the community. Picture taken February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe ( REUTERS )

“We’ll open a post office, a small store, there will be a games room with billiards and darts. We’ll host themed parties and do roast chicken on Sundays for churchgoers leaving mass,” she added.

Many villages are battling to hold onto local businesses in an era of e-commerce and out-of-town shopping malls. More than one in every two French communes is now without a village shop.

The deterioration of local services and a sense of abandonment in villages like Congrier in the western region of Pays de Loire helped provoke the deep-seated anger that spurred the “yellow vest” public rebellion against President Emmanuel Macron.

Those anti-government protests roiled France for months and highlighted the extent to which many French people living outside big cities and towns feel their communities are being hollowed out and ignored by Paris.

A view shows Congrier, France, February 15, 2020. Congrier, 900 inhabitants, is one of the first villages selected for the "1,000 cafes" project launched in France to save cafes in small villages in order to breathe life back in the community. Picture taken February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

A view shows Congrier, France, February 15, 2020. Congrier, 900 inhabitants, is one of the first villages selected for the “1,000 cafes” project launched in France to save cafes in small villages in order to breathe life back in the community. Picture taken February 15, 2020. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe ( REUTERS )

“We desperately need a convivial meeting place,” Congrier mayor Herve Tison said. “I used to see folk in the bar whom I no longer see.”

The project dubbed “1,000 cafes” has received bids from 550 villages to help resuscitate their local cafe and applications from about 1,500 people to run them.

Sureau and Buisine paid nothing for the premises and as well as the free rent the mayor’s office will finance renovations to the tune of 10,000 euros. They hope to re-open in March, much to the joy of locals.

“In tiny villages like ours, you need activities,” said retired couple Marie-Paule and Claude.

(This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.)

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