When I first saw the musical Les Miserables I was deeply impressed that the main character had turned his life around from that of a convict to become a pillar of the community and had achieved the lofty status of Mayor. Since living in France and becoming more acquainted with the local political system, I have come to respect him just a bit little less.
France has 36,782 mayors. That’s really quite a lot.
In Paris the mayor governs over 2 million people, round these parts, well, it’s not quite so many.
There are 3 small villages in our little patch and 3 local mayors. Our village officially has 254 residents (although I think that a few of the cows may have been counted in the census) and we have our own official government buildings in which official government business is dealt with. Bills can be paid, vehicles registered, births deaths and marriages can all be arranged on the doorstep, which has been jolly handy on many an occasion.
The Mayor is the central figure in any village and is called upon to perform many tasks, from deciding how to spend the annual budget to heading the remembrance day parade, from installing the village Christmas decorations to intervening in local disputes. If you have a problem with how your, many and various, taxes are spent or how loud your neighbours dog is, you will call the mayor and he will act. Whether he will act in your favour or not may be an entirely different matter, and whether he will tell the rest of the village your affairs at the next soiree is also a risk you may have to take.
From observation it would seem that the only qualifications you really need to become a local mayor in these parts are either vast tracts of local land, or a very old and very large family who supported the right side during the revolution of 1789. Of course depending on just how old your family is the right side need not have been the winning side.
Of course our village mayor is wonderful. He is always ready to lend a hand, always keeping the village and its residents as his top priority and never allows his personal feelings to interfere with his duties and never ever gossips. Did I happen to mention that our village mayor is also our landlord? Not that the fact bears any relation to the glowing endorsement. Not in the slightest.
We are actually very lucky with our Mayor, (although the village swing park has yet to materialise – but that’s for another time), and he has always been most attentive when we have needed his assistance.
We have tried desperately hard not to get involved in the wranglings of local politics, but the ‘grass roots governance’ system makes it hard to avoid.
And it is quite literally grass roots that formed the basis of my latest bafflement when dealing with local politics.
Moo’s school is in the next village along from us (a heady 2km away) and her teacher, the magnificent maitress Marion, has been battling for the last 2 years to get the various local and national permissions required to turn the waste land at the rear of the schoolhouse into a playground and garden for the children. There has been much official debate as to the overall purpose of this garden, and whether or not any funds would be allocated to its conversion as it was really not a benefit to the village as a whole. Another contentious issue was the fact that the children come to the school from all 3 local villages and really shouldn’t they all be asked to contribute rather than any costs that may be incurred come from just one mayoral budget?
Whilst Marion has actually managed to secure a minuscule portion of the village’s annual budget to part fund some new play equipment and pay for the lawn seed , the mayor stood firm and made it quite clear it was down to the A.P.E. (parents association) to provide the labour and materials as funding would not be forthcoming to cover any other costs incurred.
Almost 2 years of debate and discussion for what will essentially amount to a swing and bag of grass seed.
Strangely enough when the football team, comprised of players from many more than our 3 little villages, requested new goal nets last season they were delivered and fitted by the time of the next match. I guess they were much more beneficial to the village than a playground. Some of the locals have intimated that the mayors son being captain of the team may have expedited the decision making process, but I couldn’t possibly comment.
Late in the Autumn of last year all of the relevant papers had at long last been signed sealed and delivered and work began by parents and children clearing “L’herbe mauvais” (that’s weeds to you and me). Soon after though winter began in earnest and all hope of digging was scuppered rather quickly by Mr. Frost and co. By early spring there had been enough of a thaw to allow a working party of parents to dig out 4 large vegetable beds and the children began cultivation. It was wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the kids as they tended their young seedlings until they were strong enough to be taken to the great outdoors, whilst maitress Marion rather cunningly slipped in lessons of science, geology and biology barely noticed, yet totally absorbed, by the budding horticulturists.
A rather damp summer has begun and once more the call was made to the parents as it was time for ‘the big dig’. The veg plots only take up a small area of the land and the rest is to be turned into a lawn with swings and a slide, so there will at last be an alternative to the stone yard playground at the front of the school.
So far I had managed to miss all of the gardening sessions due to our extensive gadding about, but at last here was one I could attend. So I donned my wellies and headed off to join the others. There were just 4 of us to begin with armed with spades and rakes, and I was a little concerned that we would struggle to complete our task in the given time slot, but just as we were rather glumly contemplating the large area which needed weeding, digging and raking before we could plant the seed for the lawn, Monsieur Q. arrived like an heroic knight riding his flat-bed steed which was bearing the burden of a small miracle on it’s back. Covered in mud and fresh from his own fields Mr. Q unloaded his prize and strode triumphantly between the grateful serfs as we watched in awe as he fired up the engine of his industrial Rotavator.
The back breaking hours of digging dissolved before our very eyes as he churned up the ground in a little over half an hour. We followed in his wake raking the weeds from the freshly turned soil and making the ground as even as we could in preparation for sowing.
During a quick coffee break one of our number was dispatched to the communal store to fetch the grass seed. It took a while for him to get back and although admittedly we were enjoying our coffee in the afternoon sun we were all rather anxious to get finished.
When he returned he was carrying with him a very small bag and some bad news. The small bag contained the last of the seed in the village store, and after a brief consultation in the mayors office it turns out that despite being requested in May, the school’s order had not yet been processed, and the contents of the very small bag was all that was left. We scattered the seeds as thinly as we dared but just half of the area was covered. There was much shrugging and sighing accompanied by a little complaining at how terrible yet typical this was.
2 of us decided to take matters into our own hands and stated our intention to go to the local garden centre and buy another bag of grass, come back in the morning, finish planting and hand the receipt to the mayor. Our plan was not greeted with the expected enthusiasm. Apparently it is bad form to make purchases and demand recompense without the correct forms being issued. I then decided, as this did not seem to be a desirable option, that I would buy some seeds and donate them the school as a gift.
It was Mr. Q who came to me, rested a hand on my shoulder and with a small sigh explained very slowly to the mad impetuous foreigner just exactly the way things work.
It seems that if you wish to give a gift to a government funded institution, like a school for instance, then it must be declared officially through the regional council offices before the institution is allowed to accept the gift. Doubtless this would take several weeks and reams of paper to achieve. The gift and the giver then have to be logged in a national database to ensure that no officials are being corrupted. But, if I really wanted to go ahead with this then he would gladly accompany me to the office and begin the process. All the while I felt like screaming ‘It’s just a bag of flipping grass’ but in all honesty I had really gone off the idea by then.
I contemplated dumping a bag of grass seed on the doorstep of the school in the dead of night and running away, but I suspect that there is another lengthy diplomatic process when dealing with gifts of an anonymous nature and I feared that it would in fact be more of a hindrance that a help in the long run.
At the end of the day we shall just have to wait until the wheels of officialdom complete their circle and be content with half a lawn. It seems that no matter how local your officials are anything that has to be done through the correct channels is a slow and painful process. Unless of course you happen to like football.