AVIGNON, FRANCE -- That sacrosanct French institution, the August vacation, has been sorely tested this year. The menace of war in the Persian Gulf, hysteria in the stock markets and soaring oil prices have caused palpable consternation, not so much as a danger to French security but as a blasphemous intrusion on what is treated as serious down time.
No matter how noble their purpose, those in France who toil at their desks during summer's dog days earn more scorn than pity. George Bush has ranked ahead of Francois Mitterrand in some public opinion polls here for his handling of the gulf crisis, and the anomalous popularity of the American president may have something to do with their contrasting news images: while Bush whacks golf balls in Kennebunkport, Mitterrand has looked like a grumpy schoolmaster summoning recalcitrant ministers back to Paris for strategy sessions.
Here in Provence, talk of war has focused mainly on a grass-roots battle to block the extension of France's superfast rail network known as TGV (for Train a` Grande Vitesse) through lush vineyards and ancient villages in the south. As part of an effort to relieve Europe's congested air traffic, the government wants to enhance train connections to Italy and Spain by building new tracks for the 200-mph trains.
But those plans have been challenged by a fierce alliance of small-town mayors, young farmers and even right-wing nationalists who want to preserve the pristine tranquillity of the Provencal countryside. At the heart of their crusade is a profound distrust of authorities in Paris who are deemed insensitive to the plight of distant compatriots and a growing irritation with the proliferation of tourists in the region.
Mocking the modern train as the "tres grande vandale" -- the great vandal -- they use as their slogan: "We won't sacrifice our way of life for the sake of a few minutes." Last month, human barricades to protest the TGV project stopped 44 trains between Avignon and Marseilles, delaying 20,000 passengers.
Francis Wischart, a Scottish painter who has lived in southern France for 36 of his 38 years and is a leader in the anti-TGV movement, says unless the new routes are scrapped, local residents may adopt more desperate tactics. "People are upset because they see nature slipping through their fingers," he said. "I think violence is imminent."
But the French national rail company has fought back by marshaling the arguments of consumer and environmental groups, who contend that the bullet-nosed fast train represents an overall improvement for society even if it disturbs those who live near its path. The TGV, according to Jean Sivaldiere of the Rhone-Alps Federation for the Protection of Nature, "would reduce noise, save space and energy and avoid the expansion of airports and auto routes that are worse" for the environment.
The south of France also is waging war on another front that has aggravated the traditional enmity toward Paris. A prolonged drought and the sudden arrival of the dreaded dry winds known as the mistral have fanned the worst forest fires in a quarter-century. The fragrant Provencal air of lavender and rosemary has been overwhelmed by the acrid smoke from more than 100,000 acres of woods and brush burning 60 miles to the south.
As in their campaign against the TGV, French southerners have looked toward Paris to find a scapegoat. The absence of modern fire-fighting equipment in the region has been blamed on the Interior Ministry, particularly the lack of planes that could drop water and other fire retardants.
Meanwhile, families have rushed back from vacation to serve as volunteers, manning water hoses and making sandwiches for firefighters in a valiant, if losing, communal effort to douse the spreading flames.
The fires have accomplished one goal that the residents have long sought but failed to achieve on their own: many of the German, Dutch, Swedish and American tourists who regularly flock here in summer have stayed away or cut short their vacations.
Yet for the intensely chauvinistic people of southern France, the diminished summertime occupation this year is small consolation for the charring of the landscape they have fought so hard to preserve.