AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The debt crisis in Europe meant a rough year as countries tried to come to grips with high unemployment and austerity plans. France is facing the threat of a ratings downgrade. But still, many people there are looking ahead to the New Year with optimism, and a certain historical confidence that they'll find their way through the crisis.
Eleanor Beardsley has this report from a village in the heart of Burgundy.
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ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The Medieval town of Semur en Auxois has always been lucky. Eight hundred years ago, the Dukes of Burgundy lavished money and attention on what was then an important center of their kingdom. Today, while many surrounding factory towns are depressed, Semur en Auxois is alive with tourists drawn by cultural festivities and the town's splendid cathedral, fortified towers and well-preserved ramparts. At this time of year the village is dressed in its holiday finery.
But the lights and pealing church bells still aren't enough to cheer up retired notary Marc Francois.
MARC FRANCOIS: (Through Translator) France is finished. We've been declining for 30 years and I'm not optimistic. I used to regret not having children, but now with the future we have in sight, I'm glad I did not.
BEARDSLEY: But others don't share Francois' pessimism.
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BEARDSLEY: Stephanie Saparito's children are enjoying free pony rides through Semur's cobbled streets. Saparito says her life has been wonderful since she left the Paris suburbs for Semur 10 years ago.
STEPHANIE SAPARITO: (Through Translator) Life is beautiful with kids. I'm optimistic. I love Semur and there's not the stress of Paris out here in the lovely countryside.
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BEARDSLEY: Two thousand eleven might not have been the best of years. But this time of year is always magical in Semur, say the people swaying to the beat of this street band. Residents of Semur say they also take comfort in the town's long and rich past.
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BEARDSLEY: Semur is layered with history. Inside Medieval Notre Dame de Semur, the organ plays majestically above a stained glass window paying tribute to the American Doughboys who fought in French trenches during World War I. And not far from Semur lies the battlefield where Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, was defeated by the army of Julius Caesar in 52 BC.
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BEARDSLEY: Just across from the church, Francoise Blanc owns the lighting store her parents opened in 1940. She says Semur has seen a lot worse than an economic crisis.
FRANCOISE BLANC: (Through Translator) The Germans occupied the village during the Second World War. They lived right there in the center of town. But we were in the country, so we never went hungry. My grandfather would get food at farms nearby.
(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION AND SIZZLING)
BEARDSLEY: Today in the center of town, candy makers stir up a sizzling pot of butter and caramel to pour over almonds and peanuts. Semur residents, known as Semurois, gather around to sample and buy.
Nurse Christelle Bailly says everything's going to be all right.
CHRISTELLE BAILLY: (Foreign language spoken)
BEARDSLEY: People are a little worried about making ends meet but I'm optimistic, she says. Bailly says the Semurois will cut back a little and tighten their belts, but we'll survive, she says, we always have.
Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Semur en Auxois, France. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.