Countdown to the polls

Mayor of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gerei

Mayor of Saint-Ceneri-le-Gerei - Credit: Archant

Communes large and small have the chance to change the French political landscape in the forthcoming municipal elections, as Paul Lamarra explains

France goes to the polls in March to elect the mayors and councillors who will govern the country’s town halls for the next five years. For most of the 36,681 communes it is largely an apolitical affair that gets down to the basics of everyday life in France. Mundane details such as rubbish collection, street lighting and the fate of the local shop will be at the forefront of most people’s minds. Yet arguably, on this occasion, the political stakes have never been higher.

The most keenly fought campaign will be in Paris. Here Natalie Kosciusko-Morizet (dubbed NKM by the French press) of the centre-right L’Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP) competes with Anne Hildago of the Parti Socialiste to replace popular Socialist mayor Bertrand Delanoë and become the capital’s first female leader.

A win for the Socialists would be taken as a sign that the country is prepared to give beleaguered President François Hollande another chance to put the economy back on track, while a win in Paris for the UMP would be a helpful distraction from the party’s recent internal bickering over electing a leader to succeed Nicolas Sarkozy.

It is, however, the far-right Front National under the leadership of the charismatic Marine Le Pen that has most to gain in the forthcoming vote. Le Pen has confidently stated that these elections will take the party into the political mainstream and be a springboard to national office.

Opinion polls predict that the anti-immigration party, which pledges to take France out of the eurozone, could take as much as 42 per cent of the vote. In October last year the Front National won an important by-election in Provence, despite the Parti Socialiste urging its supporters to set aside their principles and vote for the UMP in order to keep out the far-right group.

There is better news for the Socialists in Marseille, where Patrick Manucci stands a good chance of ousting the sitting UMP mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin. Throughout Gaudin’s 19 years in power, the city has struggled to control a rise in violence between rival drug gangs. In Lyon, capital of the Rhône-Alpes, outgoing Socialist mayor Gerard Collomb has accused the Front National of exploiting hostility to the city’s Roma population.

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Away from the urban areas, more than half the candidates will stand in communes containing fewer than 500 voters. The pressure to merge with neighbouring communes is certain to grow as President Hollande is pressing for savings by streamlining the country’s overlapping layers of democracy (see La Grande Question on the following page).

Ken Tatham, the English-born mayor of the tiny village of Saint-Céneri-le-Gérei in lower Normandy, told FRANCE Magazine that such moves were regrettable. “So many small villages are having to come together to survive, sharing a mayor and a town hall,” said Ken, who plans to stand down after 17 years in the job. “It is a pity, because mayors do not cost anything and they have always been close to real people and their needs.”

It is, however, the case that some parts of the country are over-represented. Rochefourchat in the Drôme département of Rhône-Alpes has one registered voter, but is entitled to a mayor, nine councillors and a budget.

In the commune of Douaumont, near Verdun, four councillors were elected in 2008 from a population of 12, with each of the four candidates being endorsed equally by 100 per cent of the electorate. Marie-Claude Minmeister, mayor of Douaumont since 1989, said it operated like any other mairie. “We set the local tax, see to the collection of the refuse and look after the communal buildings.”

The most striking anomaly involves the six uninhabited communes in the Meuse département, which are represented by a mayor and two deputies. Appointed by the local prefect, the honorary mayors represent villages that were destroyed in the Battle of Verdun during World War I.

François-Xavier Long, a retired surgeon and honorary mayor of Louvement-Côte-du-Poivre, told FRANCE Magazine: “It is a huge honour to participate in the history of what occurred on the battlefield – Verdun was a momentous victory for France.

“In 1919 it was declared that because of the huge number of unexploded shells and mines, these villages should never be rebuilt but retain a mayor to undertake the role of remembrance, history and education. It is a dynamic role and in this special year the mayors of the destroyed villages will come together on the first Sunday in June for a big ceremony on the battlefield,” he added.

Never before have municipal elections been regarded as having historical importance, yet these polls and the European contests that follow in June have the potential to cause political upheaval in France. They could fatally undermine a president already struggling to assert his authority (particularly after the revelations about his private life), punish the UMP for its struggles to elect a new leader and give the Front National the foothold it needs to launch Marine Le Pen’s next bid for the Élysée Palace.