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Utopian living runs in the family in French village of Fontaine-Daniel

We discover how workers’ rights and social harmony have been promoted for more than a century at a former cotton mill in the Mayenne village of Fontaine-Daniel

The village of Fontaine-Daniel is hoping to join 45 other French sites and be awarded a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage listing Pic: Amis de Fontaine-Daniel

Fontaine-Daniel’s story is intertwined with its constant social and technical evolution.

“And tomorrow?” asks the booklet Fontaine-Daniel’s endowment fund sent to The Connexion.

‘Tomorrow’ could mean a Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage listing for the 160-inhabitant village north of Laval (Mayenne), an enterprise driven by the Amis de Fontaine-Daniel, an association defending the village’s history and culture. 

The association set up the endowment fund to give the village more choices, convinced that it has what it takes to join the brotherhood of 45 French sites with this Unesco listing. 

“Fontaine-Daniel is remarkable for both its material and immaterial heritage,” said Raphaël Denis, in charge of development at the Amis de Fontaine-Daniel, adding that the project was well-received by France’s ministry of culture last September. 

Inspiration from New Lanark, Scotland

Mr Denis said the material heritage was the village’s textile history, taking inspiration from New Lanark, a Scottish village which also earned the prestigious label. 

He added that the village was also remarkable for having promoted utopian socialism, exemplified at the Familistère de Guise, a well-planned philanthropic workforce settlement built in the mid to late 19th century. 

Fontaine-Daniel was founded in 1204 by Cistercian monks at Juhel III de Mayenne’s request, who built an abbey and pond to produce energy and offer fishing. 

The abbey was sold as public property during the Revolution in 1796. 

Pic: Amis de Tontaine-Daniel

The abbey was bought by an engineer and merchant in 1806, who turned it into a cotton mill. 

The association says that in 1814, 920 people worked at the mill. 

Social experiment that continued until the late 1970s

Around the mill, buildings destined to offer housing to the workforce were built in 1832, as part of a social experiment that continued until the late 1970s. 

Workers built the Saint-Michel chapel, which sits above the pond, in 1938, before going on to create and cultivate more than 600 garden plots. 

The mill company was registered under the brand name Toiles de Mayenne in 1806. 

It celebrated its 200th birthday in 2006 and survived the collapse of 98% of the spinning industry after expanding its production to include decorative fabric. 

The workers were able to buy back their housing from the company from 1975 to 2010. 

Denis family closely linked throughout mill’s history

The cooperative and social spirit of the mill’s founders never left Fontaine-Daniel and gave rise to many of its most active figures, including the Denis family, several of whom have managed the company over the years. 

Jean Denis is the son of Gustave Denis, who owned the company from 1883 to 1925 after whom he took his succession. 

Jean, the grandfather of Raphaël (the current custodian of the association), wrote a text in 1945 defending harmonious social living, and took inspiration from Robert Owen, the director of New Lanark’s spinning company. 

Fontaine-Daniel opened its épicerie-bistrot-library in 2015, aiming to maintain an active social life in the quiet village. 

Mr Denis is quietly confident that they will be awarded the Unesco distinction, mindful that New Lanark’s fate of probable demolition was turned around by the New Lanark Conservation Trust’s intervention in 1975, which led to it being recognised by Unesco in 2001. 

“What new utopia awaits Fontaine-Daniel in the coming century?” asks the village’s endowment fund booklet.

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