MONTCHEVREL — Hidden in the hills of the Orne department, in Normandy, is the village of Montchevrel, population 230, with its church, garage and, surprisingly enough, nightclub.
On this Saturday night, the parking lot of the Tempo Club is full and the bouncer is welcoming: even the the people in T-shirts and sneakers, and the ones who've already had a bit too much to drink, are being waved through. Inside, the DJ, busy with his turntables, interrupts his track with a cheerful, "Welcome Norman jet set, you're at the Tempo, the Orne's best night nightclub."
Steven and Anthony (all the people quoted in this article wished to remain anonymous) are 20, have gel in their hair, tight polo shirts and shiny necklaces around their necks. Leaning against the bar, they seem to be in a deep conversation, each with a rye-and-coke in hand, their eyes watching every girl that passes by. "Look at her, she came with her mother," one of the young men jokes. "I'm not sure that'll help her pick anyone up."
Despite the deafening sound coming out of the surrounding speakers, I decide to approach them. Is it harder to meet girls at the countryside? "We live in tiny worlds," says Steven, a farm worker. "We all grew up together. There aren't a huge number of girls."
Which is why, when his brother, a student in the neighboring city of Le Mans, told him about an application that could "geo-locate girls," Steven downloaded it straight away. Tinder, a social network used by millions of French people, allows users to select profiles according to gender and geographic position.
Steven had high hopes. Only the application didn't really work in his case. "You can imagine my disappointment when I tapped the icon (the famous red flame on a white background) and...nothing appeared, not a single profile," he explains.
The young man gets his phone out from his jeans and demonstrates this before us. Almost no network, the letter E, for Edge, appears, but however long the iPhone's small loading wheel keeps on pedaling, Tinder's message is clear: a white screen, with the words, "there are no new people around."
Alban, who doesn't really like nightclubs, lives in Frossay, a village located in the Loire-Atlantique Department, with a population of 3,100. He also experienced first-hand the limits of geo-locating dating apps. "When I installed Tinder, all I found was my sister's profile, who lives in the same house as me," he says.
Tinder suggests users adjust their "discovery preferences" — to indicate whether they're looking for a man or a woman — and, most importantly, the "research distance." Therein lies the problem for people in more rural areas.
"The standard distance is 2 kilometers," says Alban, a theme park manager, in his 30s, with blue eyes and a charming smile. "Here, that only reaches the end of the field around my house. The only thing I can 'match,' as you say on Tinder, is a cow! If I extend it to 10 kilometers, it covers all of Frossay. But over there, the girls, I know them. I went to school with them and they're all married with two kids."
And when, after a 25-kilometer radius, Tinder finally starts picking up profiles, the app coomes up against the French digital gap. As of the end of 2014, according to ARCEP, France's telecommunications regulator, nearly 70% of the territory, or 20% of the population, was still not covered by 4G. "It takes ages to see the pictures," says Alban. "It's hard not to get tired of it."
Doomed by distance
An urban bachelor can "zap" pictures as fast as he sorts profiles. But in the countryside, the Tinder revolution still hasn't arrived. "Sometimes it's such a struggle that, yes, I'll admit it, I 'like' without looking." This is the so-called "magic thumb" technique, where one rapidly presses the little heart icon a certain number of times, without taking the time to make a selection of the suggested profiles.
No network, not many profiles… The other strategy is to go and "pick up your soulmate in the neighboring large city," says Charlotte, Alban's dark-haired younger sister. "I extend it to 50 kilometers to see the profiles in Nantes. But, when the distances are really long, the radius doesn't work that well. Sometimes I chat with a guy and realize he lives in Vannes… I'm not going to travel 100 kilometers for a coffee!"
This, even more than the network problems, is the main pitfall of using Tinder in countryside: traveling dozens or even hundreds of kilometers for a meet-up. Doing so requires are car, and that's even more commitment.
"I chatted a lot with a girl who worked in Brest (300 kilometers away)," Alban recalls. "I suggested several times that we meet midway for a drink. She never accepted. Tinder dates in the countryside imply a whole lot of preparation that you can't do spontaneously. You have to organize your evening and be sure it'll work," Alban adds.
Steven and Anthony are now drinking Vodka and apple juice under the dazzling neon lights of Montchevrelâ€˜s Tempo Club. They invented their own algorithm to deal with the prolem of long-distance dates: the "physique-fuel" decision. "In the countryside, meeting girls is expensive in gas, so they need to be worth the trip," Steven explains, pleased with his find. "At the same time, there are so few that I'm not sure we can be very demanding."
This distance issue makes certain apps completely ineffective. Happn, for instance, the "French Tinder" that gained 9 million users across the world in barely a-year-and-a-half, connects people who physically pass each other. "The app detects other users that you passed, in a 250-meter-large geographic space," explains Marie Cosnard, the startup's young head of trends.
Charlotte, from Frossay, tried Happn. "But I didn't pass anyone," she says. Are geo-localizing dating apps exclusive to cities? Marie Cosnard admits that the "user experience in small towns and in the countryside has been poor."
"Too good to be true"
"Tinder in the countryside, first off, is a social filter," says Antoine, 30, an engineer living in Abbeville, in the Somme department. "In Picardy, girls still use candlelights, so when you see them on the app, it's the guarantee that they're at least a little smart," the motorbike and bowling enthusiast jokes. There's no guarantee, however, that the women are who they say they are, he admits.
"The problem with Tinder in rural areas is that behind the profiles, the girls aren't real," says Antoine. "They have eastern names and pictures that are too good to be true."
In large cities, the protitution element of Tinder is more hidden — lost in the crowd, as it were. It is much more visible in the countryside, where about one in 15 profiles are actually gateways to pornography sites or escort services, according to Antoine, Alban and other rural Tinder users.
"It always starts with a few kind messages, and very soon they ask you to go on another website, 'because the network isn't good enough' to use Tinder," Antoine explains. "Sometimes, we even exchange our Facebook profiles, and after, to see the content, you have to give money."
As difficult as dating is for rural heterosexuals, it can be even trickier for homosexuals. "Unlike for heterosxuals, villages will never organize balls for us to meet," says Laurent, a Parisian who enjoys driving in the depths of the Bourgogne region to write. "There's no trendy bar, like in the Marais [Parisian neighborhood]. But there's Grindr, and that can be a lifesaver for homosexuals."
Like Tinder, Grindr works by geo-locating user profiles. But it caters specifically to gays, and can be quite an eye-opener in some cases. François lives in a small town in the Var department. "Thanks to Grindr, I discovered the homosexuality of quite a few people I know. Like this discreet seller that I come across every day in his shop, who hit on me online," he confides.