Ever wondered how a French maire is elected and what exactly it is that they do? Ian Blackshaw lifts the lid on the life of that local stalwart of village life en France
Municipal elections were last held on 23 March 2014, with a second round of voting (where necessary) a week later on 30 March, to elect the members of the commune councils, the lowest administrative units in the system of French government. The next elections will be in 2020, as they are held every six years.
The first task of each council at its inaugural meeting is to elect the maire of their commune. Usually, the person who has received the most votes in the local election poll is elected maire, provided they accept the appointment.
Although the maire undertakes some ceremonial duties, such as presiding at annual Armistice Day ceremonies, it is much more than a merely ceremonial role; maires fulfil a wide range of functions and have a number of legal responsibilities for their communities.
Meet the mayor
For an expat buying a property in France, especially in a small village, it is advisable to make a point of meeting the maire and introducing oneself. As readers driving around France may well have noticed, however small the village, each one has its own elected maire and its own town hall (mairie), often attached to the local school.
Apart from such introductions, it is important to get to know your maire, as he or she is able to help local residents with a variety of matters – not least in acting as a mediator in settling disputes between neighbours.
If you intend to make the property you have purchased your permanent residence, rather than use it as a holiday home, then you should also register with the maire. For retirees settling in France, registration often ensures an invitation to the annual Christmas lunch – normally a jolly and liquid affair – and/or entitlement to receive a Christmas hamper distributed to older residents.
Resident expats in France are eligible to vote in municipal elections and may also stand for election to their local councils – this year, some 1,525 British candidates stood for election. Foreigners, who have been elected as municipal councillors and have obtained French nationality, may also be elected as maire; the current maire of the Normandy commune of St-Céneri-le-Gérei is Yorkshire-born Ken Tatham.
The councillors and the maires who they elect are usually appointed for a term of six years.
In Metropolitan France, there are 36,571 communes, many with fewer than 100 voters. This means that there are 36,571 elected maires, and there are some moves afoot to reduce this number.
As leaders of their communes, maires are paid a monthly salary and exercise a great deal of power and influence in their local communities. For example, any property development in a town or village, such as the renovation of an existing property or the building of a new one, requires planning consent, and applications are made through the maire, before being passed on to the departmental planning authorities for a review of technical matters.
It is a good idea, therefore, to discuss any planned property developments first with the maire and get his or her views before submitting a formal application. It is fair to say that if the local maire likes the proposed development project, it stands a very good chance of being approved. In other words, get the maire on your side in the first place!
Maires also conduct civil wedding ceremonies. With same-sex marriages now legal in France, a number have refused to conduct ceremonies on grounds of religious and moral beliefs. However, the French constitutional court ruled in October 2013 that it was not unconstitutional for public officials to be required to officiate at same-sex marriages, regardless of their objections.
Another mayoral responsibility is the maintenance of law and public order in their communities. Each maire holds regular surgeries known as permanences at the mairie, at which anyone in the community may raise issues and discuss local concerns.
Qualified secretaries, who are also salaried, assist maires in the performance of their duties: it’s a good idea to keep on the right side of them as well!
Ian Blackshaw is an international lawyer