About 18 months ago my friend and neighbour called round to ask if I would be interested in putting myself forward as a Conseillière for our local commune of St Georges des Sept Voies. Frankly, I was shocked that he considered me suitable or indeed capable but he stressed how good it would be to have an ‘outsider’ with a fresh point of view on the Council, that my French was certainly up to scratch and that being a small business owner was a big plus. I accepted.
Last night, 18 months after being voted on to the Council, I stepped down. With the territorial reforms imposed upon us by the state and the pressure to manage our finances more efficiently, we have joined forces with 4 other small communes close to us and formed a new commune – Gennes-Val de Loire, the first of what will be many new communes in our region and which takes effect from January 1st 2016. This new initiative presented itself soon after the last elections but was unknown to us beforehand. It’s been an all consuming year for the Council seeking out willing partners with whom to move forward and then endless meetings between the Mayors and Adjoints.
Although there are many areas of common interest within our communities: education, tourism, patrimony to name but a few – the main force behind this move has been financial. As is the case in many European economies, times are tough and available money at local level is being progressively squeezed so joining forces allows us to pool resources both financially and from a staffing perspective.
In the past, local Councils were run largely by retired people with lots of time on their hands. With one or two exceptions, our Council is made up of younger people, all of whom have full-time jobs and many of whom have young families. This has meant that meetings of the various ‘commissions’ or committees (security, roads, patrimoine, education, transport, communication etc to name but a few) have all taken place outside of working hours often late into the night. It’s a serious commitment and it’s no surprise that increasingly fewer people are ready to take it on.
Our Conseil had a tricky start. The three councillors on our list who had put themselves up for the position of Mayor were not voted on to the council so that left us in a very tricky position. A council with no Mayor. After much deliberation and discussion we persuaded my neighbour (the one who persuaded me to stand for office) to present himself. A man with no pretensions, this was not his goal but nevertheless he took on the role and has done us proud. A retired anthropologist, frankly he was the perfect man for the job and has proved to be a great diplomat in the negotiations with our new colleagues. The role of Mayor is all consuming and his lovely wife has felt very alone this past 18 months. Bringing together a new group of people with different perspectives and beliefs is one thing but add to that the task of joining up with another 4 similar communities and the politics that goes alongside that and you can understand.
For my part, I have tried to involve myself as and when I felt able. It will come as no surprise that I was charged with looking after the cellar and making sure there was plenty of wine for our events and festivities. I’ve enjoyed being a part of the CCAS (the committee that looks after the social side of things, isolation, poverty, community, transport for those less able etc) and will continue to be involved at local level. I’ve been able to comment effectively about the problems and advantages of running a small French business in a rural location and at times have found it stressful and have struggled to understand what all the endless acronyms stand for!
This next phase will be a difficult one for my colleagues. Each commune retains its Mayor with one being voted as the Mayor or Mayors and the number of councillors will gradually be reduced from an initial 57 to an eventual 33 hence it was a good time for me to stand down at this point. The merging of 5 communities into one while retaining the individuality of each will be a hard task. A population of more than 1,000 also has to declare a political allegiance, something we have managed to avoid in our community to date.
The inclusive, non-judgmental, non-political, open and gentle approach of our Mayor, Dominique Brunetière, successfully unified a rather spiky, diverse and sometimes hostile group of people that now works as a united team with a common aim.
I know there is much work to be done to preserve this and that my colleagues have their work cut out in the months that follow as the integration process begins. My thanks to you all and good luck!