Before we were so rudely interrupted – meaning, before the President put the nation back into lockdown – the city of Montpellier was gearing up for an ambitious programme of exhibitions, talks and performances to commemorate something I cannot imagine being commemorated in the UK: the 10th anniversary of the death of a municipal politician.
Like so many other plans this wretched year, events were kiboshed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the saddest local casualty in this respect has been a year-long celebration of the 900th anniversary of Montpellier's medical school, the oldest continuously functioning medical school in the world. The poor medics had been waiting a long time to party: their 800th anniversary in 1920 was also curtailed… by the Spanish Flu pandemic. Already, one starts to dread their millennium.
So too the plans to pay homage to Georges Frêche: though not before posters had gone up all over town, and the local newspaper had published an astonishing 18-page supplement in tribute to the plump, dishevelled, testy man who was mayor of Montpellier for 27 years, and then president of the Languedoc-Roussillon regional authority for a further six until his death on 24 October 2010.
Can you imagine anything of the sort happening in Britain? You would have to go back perhaps to Joe Chamberlain in Birmingham or Herbert Morrison in London – or, at a stretch, to early-period Ken Livingstone – to find a British council leader whose legend has endured to anything like such a degree. For sure, Scotland has had its share of respected council bosses – a Dick Stewart or Charlie Gray at Strathclyde, a Brian Meek or Eric Milligan in Edinburgh – but no-one of Frêche's undiminishing stature. British council chambers are not the place to look for heroes.
One big reason for that is the paucity of their powers, which shrivel by the decade. Local government since Margaret Thatcher exists to eke out meagre pocket money from central government and do what it's told. Major functions like housing, economic development or schools policy have been systematically confiscated, along with the fiscal discretion to make a difference even supposing the political licence was there. Arms-length agencies and 'partnerships' run much of what remains because people trained in management, rather than elected by voters, understand budgets. Councils that have tried to shake off the shackles have been surcharged or, in extremis, abolished. A successful administration is one that spends as little money as possible. From such virtues, heroes can emerge only for those who have calculators where their souls should be.
French local government is not at all like that. Georges Frêche is celebrated because he came to power with a transformational vision for his city, and the grit to spend the next three decades relentlessly putting it in place – so much so that his fellow-Socialist successors, Hélène Mandroux and Philippe Saurel, had little choice but to work to complete Frêche's grand designs. As the supplement in La Gazette
put it: 'It is already 10 years since Georges Frêche left us, and not a day has passed that his name does not return in conversations'.
Small wonder. When Frêche took office in 1977, Montpellier ranked 23rd in population among French cities. He proclaimed an implausible ambition to hoist it into the top 10 within 30 years. Today, Montpellier is either France's 8th or 14th biggest metropolis, depending on which borders you measure, and growing faster than pretty much anywhere else in the country. With growth has come a transformation that is more than physical. Gone is the dozy, petit-bourgeois university town of the 1970s, with its late-medieval inner city – the Écusson – its vineyards and its congenial proximity to the Mediterranean shore. In its place is a young, vibrant city, spreading relentlessly towards both the hills and the sea on the momentum of leading edge IT and biotech, dazzling academic facilities (its ancient university has been joined by six others, plus countless colleges), a bustling cultural scene, and some of France's most startling architecture. It has become known as one of the coolest places in the country to live, and so it is.
Not all the change was down to Frêche personally, and not all is to everyone's taste. He is justly accused of favouring concrete over flora, and even stylish concrete doesn't always age gracefully. Montpellier's remaining green spaces, you sometimes feel, survive despite, not because of, Georges Frêche. Yet he showed a greener side in pedestrianising the Écusson, building a popular tramway (currently, Edinburgh heed, constructing a fifth line), and tastefully renovating the city's fine Musée Fabré gallery. What no-one disputes is that the vision that drove the change was his.
And what change. An extraordinary new district of Antigone sprang up, linked by a controversial (okay, ugly) shopping centre to Montpellier's huge main square, the Comédie. Planned and executed to an heroic scale by Catalan architect Ricardo Bofill, its neo-classical palisades, archways, crescents and fountained avenues mix chic apartments with social housing and offices in an extravagance of almost comical grandeur that joins the city to the embanked skoosh of the River Lez, where elegant leisure space leads on to stylish new districts, like the lagooned Port Marianne, across the bridges.
Antigone was not universally popular when it was built, and isn't now. Its scale bestows sufficient panache to excuse the pastiche, but only just. Still, in the decade we have known it, what began as a bleak and unwelcoming place, especially at night, has become popular and pleasantly busy. It has, somehow, acquired a soul.
Meanwhile, Frêche was conjuring new spectacles from the chalky soil of the Languedoc. A new business quarter at Millénaire (who wants to be in Millénaire? goes the joke. Answer: pretty much every high-tech corporation you can think of); a huge shopping and leisure district, Odysseum, anchored by IKEA; an Olympic swimming pool and high-tech central library in Antigone; a convention centre and second opera house at the Corum; a stylish new stadium to indulge the city's rugby obsession; a new town at Lattes set around a circular marina; an aquarium; an arena; and any number of schools, libraries, sports centres and swimming pools in the city's burgeoning suburbs.
Nowhere do you see Georges Frêche described as tactful. Photographs invariably show a twinkle in his eye and a mouth at full throttle. He once called Pope John Paul II an idiot, and could exhibit an unpleasant line in racial generalisation. Yet, political opponents recall him as 'affable' and always ready to do deals to make things happen.
Making things happen is the measure of success in French local government. It is tailor-made for big personalities. It may be expensive and inefficient, but it rewards imagination over parsimony, vision over prudence, legacy over savings. You win elections by offering the most exciting vision, not the best way to pinch pennies. Extravagance is not a sin if it brings better facilities and services than the town next door.
Today, there is a statue to Georges Frêche at Odysseum, a school bearing his name, and a tram stop named after him, near the monumental new town hall. Teased about his municipal longevity, he used to say 'The cemeteries are full of "indispensable" men'. Ten years on, no-one in Montpellier has forgotten that he was one of them.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster