‘We found balance between joy and frugality living off-grid in France’

A French couple have not had a water bill for 48 years but their mission has always been to save the planet rather than save money

Brigitte, 74, and Patrick, 76, Baronnet have lived off the grid for decades with a well, solar and wind power
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Patrick Baronnet, one half of a couple who have become French media darlings thanks to their off-grid lifestyle, talks about finding joy in self-sufficiency

The Baronnets have been busy responding to requests for interviews from most of France’s newspapers, TV and radio stations since late June.

Patrick Baronnet, 76, a retired physical education teacher, and his wife Brigitte Baronnet, a 74-year-old harp player, pursue the kind of lifestyle that inspires others to walk the same path.

Patrick and Brigitte have been self-sufficient in water, electricity and basic fruit and vegetables at their home in Moisdon-la-Rivière (Loire-Atlantique) since the 1990s.

The French media have hailed the couple for their “lack of water bills for 48 years and electricity bills for 25 years”, a tempting headline in the current context of rising inflation, loss of spending power and soaring energy bills exacerbated by the war in Ukraine.

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The Baronnets’ home, renamed the ‘autonomous house’, has provided a focus for a growing body of people looking to follow their lead, evident from the packed training courses the couple offered over the summer.

Patrick talks about the early days when they left Paris, how they slowly became self-sufficient and embraced the eco-friendly idea of ‘treading lightly’.

He has plenty of tips for how readers can follow their example. Overall, he describes attaining happiness without relying on material things, and that the reduction of consumption is an “absolute necessity for the coming years.”

Read more: Tips for saving hundreds of euros on annual energy bills in France

Patrick, whose appearance suggests a man in his mid-50s, is a poster boy for the many benefits of a simple lifestyle.

“When we left Paris, we were 40 years ahead of our time. We are still 20 years ahead,” he said.

You left Paris after finishing your studies. You knew what you did not want to do, but not necessarily what you wanted to do.

Absolutely and that’s why we were all too alone when we left Paris in 1973.

My friends and fellow graduates told me how wrong I was to leave, that I should stay in Paris to secure a job, make connections, money and have a well-planned career.

Everybody wanted to work and live in Paris in the 1970s. It was the trend.

When we were talking about buying a house, however, we meant a house in the country with a well and a garden.

Nowadays, the trend has reversed, and 90% of Parisians look for a country house with a well and a garden, purely for materialistic reasons.

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We tried to embrace ‘happy sobriety’, since sobriety is pointless if you don’t have happiness.

The goal was to limit our ecological footprint, and leaving Paris was a no-brainer since we depended heavily on public transport.

We knew we would benefit from having a garden in the countryside and that we needed very little.

The idea was to lower our dependence on money so that we could be more autonomous.

The media have labelled you as the couple who haven’t had water bills for 48 years and electricity bills for 25 years. Could you break down how our readers can reach this kind of self-sufficiency?

This is a bit of a reductive formula. The first step is autonomy of thought.

We have a responsibility not to annoy the rest of the world, yet Western society has essentially been dishing out misery to the whole world.

We wanted to live lightly, which means reducing our consumption and dependence on energy companies.

Sobriety is an essential process for both the planet and the wallet. Sobriety starts with water.

When we bought our house, we asked to be off-grid.

We had a well that gradually became polluted by intensive farming, and we understood then that the well water could only be used for watering the garden.

So we created a system that directed the rain falling on our roof into four 2,000-litre cisterns.

We are self-sufficient in water just from these eight square metres.

Then came electricity and food…

We power the house with nine square metres of solar panels and one wind turbine.

Read more: Solar panels on French property: how to make your own electricity

I do not know any other Westerner that can live on nine square metres of solar, I’m telling you.

Solar power works for eight months of the year when the weather is good, and we managed without a wind turbine for a year.

Most people could live without a wind turbine and with only 10 square metres of solar panels.

The garden provides us with a healthy harvest of salads, carrots, beetroots and vegetables.

How do we start our journey towards self-sufficiency?

Start by taking readings from your electricity metre of your weekly consumption and compare the figures from one week to the next.

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We consume three kilowatts per day as a couple, whereas a single French person consumes on average between nine and 12 kilowatts daily.

Then, it’s like playing a game.

You start to track which appliances consume the most electricity, such as the hot water tank, the fridge or the freezer.

Being a vegetarian reduces the need for a fridge. Having a garden eliminates the need for a fridge.

Eating less meat lowers your carbon footprint massively.

If every Briton got rid of their refrigerator or hot water tank, this would mean something.

I do not say this has to be done. I say it first needs to be understood so that it can be done with joy.

There is a balance to be found between happiness and frugal living.

President Macron is a liberal, so how can your concept of sobriety fit his idea of liberalism and the current race for growth?

We are governed by people who know nothing. The race for growth is serious and it’s criminal. It’s a crime against nature. What does it mean to be pro growth? What kind of growth?

GNP and wealth is yesterday’s news.

Read more: How much do you need to earn to count as rich in France?

This mentality actually works against progress. We want to see growth of the conscience.

Humans did not evolve to eat the way they now eat, drive the way they drive, consume the way they consume. We were meant to seek happiness.

Growth is no longer attainable if you look at the depletion of fossil fuels, for instance.

People are starting to look for alternative solutions and are beginning to understand that happiness is not linked to heavy consumption.

We were 40 years ahead of our time when we left Paris and that is the reason we were treated as misfits by our friends and the general public.

We are still 20 years ahead of everyone else.

Which lessons do you hope to pass on to future generations?

We want to be better stewards for energy self-sufficiency, and show that a happy life is possible without being a burden on the developing world.

That was never our desire. We moved here to build a lifestyle that could be shared by both the developed and the developing worlds.

The West must cut its consumption sixfold, and the developing world by half or a third.

However, we need to give back to the developing world and repay our debts after exploiting them for their resources. We are over developed whereas they are under developed.

The least we can do is to help them. We owe them.

We will inevitably need to pare back our consumption habits, then share and participate in their development.

We have destroyed so many different cultures in pursuit of liberalism. When we no longer have their heritage and wisdom, we will basically have become materialistic zombies.

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