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'They make France what it is': The importance of the French village mayor

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'They make France what it is': The importance of the French village mayor
AFP
13:24 CEST+02:00
There are over 35,000 mayors in France, and over half of them oversee villages of less than 500 people. But what exactly do they do? Emilie King explains why these village leaders are an integral part of the fabric of the country.

It's a picture-perfect image of rural France: the church steeple rising above village rooftops, the square with its café, boulangerie and dominating it all, a mairie - the town hall - its balconies bursting with flowers and a French flag flying outside next to the national motto "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité".

Today, perhaps another, more realistic image of some French villages is the steeple, the square with no shops, some boarded up houses but still, the mairie standing proudly.

(The village hall in Nievroz, eastern France)

The fact that even the most deserted hamlet in France has a mayor may be baffling to many foreigners, and it is unique. There is a reason for this: the country is divided up administratively into just under 36,000 cities, towns, villages and hamlets called 'communes'.

And at the heart of every single one of these communes - of which over half count less than 500 inhabitants - is a mairie and a mayor.

These mayors are not just for show. They actually have a role to play and have a large number of duties and responsibilities ranging from organising elections, to preparing budgets, delivering building permits, presiding over civil weddings and maintaining the public order.

But their roles can also leave them doing the jobs in the village that no one else will do.

One former mayor, British born Ken Tatham (pictured below) who was at the helm of his Normandy village Saint Céneri le Gerei for 19 years told The Local about the kind of role he had.

"In my first week as mayor, I had to do a marriage, which I had obviously never done before. Then there was an enormous boulder that rolled off a cliff on to the road and blocked traffic for several days.

"I had no idea who to turn to, to get help. Me and my family also spent one Christmas Eve clearing a road of rocks because no French people were working."

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Mayors officially have the role of head of the municipal council, the commune's main magistrate, judicial police officer and civil officer. 

One of their bigger responsibilities for example is the primary schools. The communes are in charge of France's state primary schools. They are responsible for building them, and repairing and extending school buildings. The mairies employ all the school's non-teaching staff and run the canteen. They can also set the price families pay for the canteen and change the school hours to cater for local needs. The mairies map out catchment areas and oversee any issues arising from them.

In Paris and in France's other big cities like Marseille and Lyon, the mayor is a public figure, whose role is often very political given the size of the budget he or she oversees and the responsibilities they have.

Mayors of France's major cities often use their appointment as a springboard for a government job - the former French president Jacques Chirac for example, was the mayor of Paris before going on to become head of state.

But the mayors of villages and hamlets play a much more hands-on role in the life and day-to-day of the citizens they represent.

René Cauquil is the mayor of Agel, a small village surrounded by vineyards deep in the French countryside about an hour away from Montpellier in southern France. His family has been in the village for five generations and Cauquil knows everyone.

Working with him in the tiny mairie overlooking miles and miles of vines, is one secretary and a municipal employee. Like in all the town halls all over France, the bust of 'Marianne', the woman who symbolises the French Republic, greets visitors as they enter.

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Mayors are officially head of the municipal council, the commune's main magistrate, judicial police officers and civil officers, under which they perform a large number of duties including:
 
As head of the municipal council
  • enforcing the decisions made by the council
  • preparing the budget and making sure it is properly enforced
  • recruiting and managing staff employed by the mairie
  • writing and signing municipal decrees
  • organising elections
As the commune's main magistrate
  • maintaining the public order
  • public health
  • security
As judicial police officer and civil officer
  • handling complaints
  • conducting preliminary hearings
  • officiating civil weddings
  • registering death and birth certificates
  • overseeing traffic-related issues (including issuing parking fines)

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Cauquil, a tall man who cuts a fine figure with his thick moustache and mane of white hair, has been mayor for 10 years (although he proudly points out that he first started working in the mairie on the bicentenary year of the French Revolution, in 1989). He might be retired, but his days are full.

"My work consists of looking after my employees: my secretary, who does all the administrative work. She'll support people, especially the elderly, and show them how to use internet for example or help with organising after school activities," explains Cauquil.

"I also have one employee who looks after the green spaces in the village, the tennis court, the graveyard. He'll also do a bit of DIY, and he's around when the school bus returns to make sure all the kids are safe. He also takes care of the upkeep of all the roads leading to the vineyards and there are many kilometres of it. Without them, I don't know what the village would do."

When he is not managing his staff, Cauquil takes time to walk around the village talking to people. "Human contact is very important, that's when all the information gets passed on. And my employee, he sees everything that goes on," he said.

(Not all mairies are grand old buildings. This is the HQ of the village of Belesta-en-Lauragais in the Haute-Garonne department of south west France. AFP)

In rural France, where some villages barely have internet and whose elderly population isn't mobile, mayors provide a vital link in the community.

Sylvie Najotte, mayor of the village of Montigny-les-Vaucouleurs, in the hills of Alsace in eastern France said "People come and talk to us to let us know if someone is no longer able to look after themselves, and we'll see who can deliver the bread to them for example.

"We'll also talk about issues around primary schools. We play, more often than not, the role of social worker."

Mayors as they are known today appeared during the French revolution when parishes where transformed into municipalities and mairies popped up all over France replacing the church with secular representations of the state.

The typical village hall  - square stone buildings with clocks in the middle of their facade - found in most French villages, appeared in the mid 19th century when a new law obliged every municipality to build a school. These new buildings built in every commune often doubled up as mairies.

"Modest or triumphant, old or modern, the mairies of France all have in common the fact that they are both the banners of the republic and a bridge between the citizens and the state," French newspaper La Croix explains.

"The mayor who is present in every French town and village symbolises this dual power. Since the French revolution, the mairies - with their facades engraved with the republican motto [Liberté, Egalite, Fraternité], busts of Marianne and fresques depicting the people - embody the pre-eminence of political power over economic and religious power," the newspaper said.

(The village hall in Vaujany, in the French Alps. AFP)

In France, a mayor is nominated every six years after the municipal elections. During this vote, voters elect the members of the municipal council (conseil municipal) who then nominate a mayor and his or her deputies (adjoints au maire). The next municipal election in France is due to take place in 2020.

Mayors don't get paid a salary but receive a monthly allowance based on the size of the population they serve. At the bottom of the scale, a mayor of a village of less than 500 inhabitants will get just under €650 a month and at the top are the mayors of France's biggest cities who are receive over €8000 monthly.

Being mayor - even of a tiny hamlet -  comes with many responsibilities and is very time consuming.

"The mayor is accountable to his people, he has many responsibilities and must also ensure that everyone is getting on ok and that things are fine," said Sylvie Najotte, who still works full time on top of her mayoral responsibilites. "You eat into your personal time, you don't have the choice. But it's an extraordinary experience. It forces you to think about the way you do things."

She believes mayors are what makes France the country it is.

"Mayors are France's history, those 36,000 village steeples make France!" Najotte said. "It is this love for our land that explains our history."

Across the other side of France, Cauquil would agree. "I love my village. I've been here for five generations and I love my land. That's why I'm mayor."

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