Something that perpetually intrigues visitors to France is the mairie. It is usually the most striking building in any town or village. You're in some tiny shuttered hamlet only visibly populated by goats, and you come upon a fine belle époque mansion with tall, well-maintained windows, rooftop flags, and possibly a fountain. My, imagine the ego that must have been built to accommodate.
If you are of advancing years, your mind may turn to Clochemerle
, Gabriel Chevallier's classic, if dated, comic novel about a mayor battling the local clergy over plans to erect a pissoir in a Beaujolais village. Chevallier satirised a vehement parish pump politics that, you'd think, must have vanished with the Third Republic. But no: here in the Fifth Republic, and the third millennium, every commune still has its mairie and its mayor: a total, for the statistically minded, of 36,569, not counting more than 200 more in French overseas territories.
Had you been driving through France these past few weeks, you would have noticed something else. Over many mairies the flags were at half-mast. The reason is a sad but interesting insight into this most French of civic institutions.
The gesture denoted respect for a man called Jean-Mathieu Michel. For the last 36 years Michel had been mayor of a village called Cignes, in the département of Var, north of Toulon. The entire commune, of which the village is the centre, has a population of fewer than 2,800, and it is a fair bet that Mayor Michel knew most of them. Two that he didn't know, so it is alleged, were the occupants of a lorry he spotted dumping rubble up a remote back road. He remonstrated with them and told them to reload. They drove off, fatally crushing Michel beneath their wheels as they went.
It sent a shock through France's sprawling local government system, not least because Michel's actions exemplified the sort of active localism that small communities expect of their mayor. As the local paper, Nice-Matin
, remarked, '[it] was not radical or heroic. It was just an attempt to enforce the law and remind people younger than himself that the same laws apply to everyone'.
It has also been the cue to re-examine the view that the mairie is a subsidised playground for puffed-up egos. Small-town mayors, the paper points out, never lack for contradiction, the sort delivered personally in the café rather than on Twitter. 'If someone puts on the tricolour sash, most of the time it's due to two old, stunted ideas that don't make anyone excited any more: a sense of duty and of public service.'
Certainly, for mayors of one-horse towns, there is a lot of work for scant reward, beyond the esteem of one's neighbours. The post is frugally paid. But it does carry some political value, which increases with size of commune. To be mayor of a substantial French city can be a big deal.
The current prime minister, Édouard Philippe, came to office as mayor of Le Havre. Jacques Chirac mounted two unsuccessful bids for the presidency as mayor of Paris, a near 20-year stint bookended by terms as prime minister under Giscard d'Éstaing and François Mitterand. Giscard himself was elected to the presidency from the mairie at Chamalières, and tried unsuccessfully to be mayor of Clermont-Ferrard a decade and a half after he lost the Élysee.
What mayors big and small have in common is that they are judged on individual endeavour more than party allegiance. The mayor here in Montpellier is the ubiquitous dentist Philippe Saurel, formerly of the socialist party and now of the broad-left Divers Gauche. Scarcely a piece of paper moves in Montpellier that doesn't have Saurel's photograph on it. He officiates at the opening of everything bigger than a jar of olives, and is an familiar presence in the front row of concerts and sports events. Barely a week passes without some dazzling new idea for developing the city emanating from the colossal blue hȏtel de ville by the river Lez.
Fair enough: Saurel's city is one of the fastest growing in Europe, and growth without vision and forethought is, well, Drumchapel and Craigmillar. French politicians, especially at local level, win votes not by finessing shrivelled budgets but by having large, exciting ideas. Saurel has big shoes to fill. His last but one predecessor, Georges Frêche, is remembered as the man who invented the modern Montpellier during his 27 years in post, commissioning the neo-classical Antigone district, attracting high-tech industries and spreading the city in every possible direction. He had an unfortunate line in racial stereotyping and once called Pope John-Paul II an idiot, but he remains the standard against which Saurel's hopes of re-election next year will be judged.
What's odd is that large-scale planning is in theory nothing much to do with the commune. Strategic planning power lies with the département, and economic development with the next tier up again, the region. But it is never – ever – that simple. People look to the mayor, especially in cities, to set the pace and tone of municipal destiny. S/he has some responsibilities independent of the commune – as registrar, school enrolment officer, cultural funding font, local police commissioner, budget accounting officer – and some individual powers, notably public security and wellbeing, but they are limited. Earlier this year, the Mayor of Langouët in Brittany decided he had the right to ban pesticides within 150 metres of the village. The courts last month decided otherwise, even though his crusade against agrichemicals has support from President Macron.
Prior to 1982, local government generally was subservient to the prefect, the representative of central government in each département. But Mitterand decentralised policy and resources to the local authorities and shrank the prefect's role to a largely administrative, supervisory and ceremonial one. Critics feared that this would encourage civic empire building, divert local tax revenues into national party coffers, and create tensions between councils and prefects. It did all three.
The prefect is now rather like the Scottish secretary post-devolution, though most are of higher calibre than the dumplings that have typically occupied Dover House since 1999. As with that once great office, they are not quite ready to subside quietly. The prefect of Ain, for example, has just fined the commune of Bourg-en-Bresse 90,000 Euros for promoting too many women, in breach of national gender parity laws. Our own prefect here in Hérault recently interpreted his public safety remit as entitling him to ban fireworks because of summer fire risks.
In an improbable effort to instil cohesion, a further statute in 1992 encouraged alliances for the common good between authorities. Here, it spawned Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole, a would-be Greater Montpellier comprising 31 communes, and chaired by Saurel. If the hope was to reduce territorialism, the outcome was the opposite – which is why the tram network still stops short of both the beach and the airport, both of which lie in thrawn outer communes.
More legislation looms. Macron, having already forced through deeply-resented regional mergers, wants to reduce local tax discretion and cut numbers of politicians, local and national. Frankly, it is hard to look at France's vast, exorbitant and painfully inefficient public bureaucracy and not see the point. But it might be best not to say so in the hearing of the mayor.