Aux Urnes, Mes Citoyens: the French Local Elections

Hôtel de Ville - Town Hall

Hôtel de Ville – Town Hall

The French municipal elections take place at the end of March this year. Passions are already running high, although a French friend who is standing says candidates are not supposed to canvass until a couple of weeks before the elections. She’s told us all her ideas but I suppose that’s okay, since we don’t live in the same commune.

Ancient hostilities

Local politics in France can be a minefield. The issues, some of which date back decades, are often of a very local rather than a national nature. Consequently, they inspire considerable controversy and stoke up historical enmities. The smaller the commune, the more acrimonious and personal things can become. A friend is mayor of a small village. She says half the villagers refuse to speak to her.

The fictional town of Clochemerle was immortalised in a TV series some years ago. The town is riven by the decision to install a urinal and eventually the ‘anti’ faction blows up the offending convenience. This might sound far-fetched but it’s not so far from reality.

Things are now changing, but the office of Maire was viewed almost as a personal fiefdom in places, passing seamlessly from father to son. I could name several villages in this area where that was the case until very recently. And some Maires have held office almost all their adult lives, like one in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, who is laying down his sash after 66 years. The prestige of the job has waned while the responsibilities and hassle have increased, so some communes struggle to find someone who wants to be Maire.

In the lists

The municipal elections take place every six years, so anyone who signs up to be a conseiller municipal (councillor) is in for a long stint. To be elected, you have to get onto a list of candidates. Normally, in a village the size of ours (1,500 inhabitants), you find two or three opposing lists. The organiser of a list is the person who expects to be elected Maire by the other conseillers municipaux once the public elections are complete.

Some changes have taken place since the previous elections. Formerly, in our village, you could vote for any combination of names from any or all of the lists, provided you didn’t exceed a certain total number of names. You just crossed out those names you didn’t want to vote for (no putting x’s in boxes here), put the lists in the envelope and dropped it in the urne (ballot box).

Now, in communes with more than 1,000 inhabitants, you have to choose between the opposing lists, i.e. you vote for only one list in its entirety, not individual names. In our village, the number of conseillers municipaux has gone up from 15 to 19. And there has to be parity between the number of men and women fielded on each list and on the subsequent council. The elections take place on two consecutive Sundays: 23rd and 30th March this year.

There are a lot of additional rules about how to divvy up the votes by proportional representation. But since you need a degree in advanced mathematical theory to understand them and I’m brain-damaged following a bout of flu, I will spare you those.

Foreign influx

Increasing numbers of Brits are standing for election in France. As EU citizens, we are eligible both to vote (provided we registered before 31st December 2013) and to stand in the local elections. But you have to be a French citizen to become Maire. We know a number of British people who have been or are hoping to become conseillers municipaux. It doesn’t appeal to me but good luck to them for making efforts to integrate.

This recalls a rather surreal conversation I had with our neighbours just before the 2008 elections. We were talking about the head of one of the lists in our commune.

‘Oh, I wouldn’t vote for him,’ Mme F said. ‘He doesn’t come from around here.’

She then looked at me. ‘Are you thinking of standing?’

Well, actually, I don’t come from around here, either.

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About Vanessa Couchman

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to Aux Urnes, Mes Citoyens: the French Local Elections

  1. I’ve been on the Conseil for the last term and have been asked to stand again. Not because they think I’m great, but they need me to make up the numbers – we’re a tiny commune with only 49 inhabitants. I groan every time a Convocation drops into the letterbox; the meetings are so boring I find it hard to keep awake. I’m glad to say we’re a happy village so there are no petty politics, the talk mostly centres around ditches, roads, street lamps and frequently, the cemetery. Oh and the roof of the mairie. Not riveting stuff, but it is good to be getting brownie points for being there at all.

    • nessafrance says:

      Good for you for making the effort. I understand that, this time, a number of small communes are struggling to get a list together – which they must do by tomorrow night. It’s not something that appeals to me in the least but I have every admiration for people who do stand.

  2. amelie88 says:

    Local politics everywhere are petty. There were some really stupid scandals during my town’s previous mayor’s tenure (that I don’t even really understand because I didn’t bother to keep up with them) and I think he just got really sick of the pettiness and cattiness (plus all the scandals made him look incompetent and really bad) so he decided not to run again once his term was up. It’s rather amusing to read the articles in the local paper about all the infighting–looks like the high school drama never completely goes away even with adults.

    • nessafrance says:

      Around here, some of the issues go back to WWII and are revived by subsequent generations. But sometimes it’s as simple as who likes – or doesn’t like – whom.

  3. Evelyn says:

    This is my first exposure to village politics…it’s fascinating! In my tiny village (150 or so) everyone holds their breath each time that there will be enough people willing to serve. Our ‘list’ requires 11. If we don’t have enough, we will be absorbed by Cajarc and no one wants that. Luckily, we came up with enough candidates, so we are spared for another 6 years. This election 3 of the candidates are young (i.e. not retired!) so that bodes well for the future. People here seem willing to accept ‘outsiders’ on the council, but definitely the mayor must be local…as in born in the village, better yet, trace their family back several generations and be a farmer!

    • nessafrance says:

      We live right at the extremity of our commune and so we have much more to do with the neighbouring village, which is closer. So the politics of our own village don’t touch us greatly here (except we pay the local taxes).

      Some of the tiny communes are struggling to remain viable both financially and electorally. There does seem to be a movement from on high to rationalise the numbers of bodies that exist. Our friend who is standing for election lives in one of those tiny communes, where the demographics have changed hugely in 30 years and the vast majority of voters are well over 50. No one there wants to be absorbed by another commune, either.

  4. MELewis says:

    What an interesting post. I never bothered to find out so much of the backstory about elections, local or otherwise, in France. I just give myself a pat on the back for getting on the voters list and doing my bit for democracy! By the way, what is the name of the show who’s plot you describe? Clochemerle sounds familiar, but I can’t quite place it.

    • nessafrance says:

      I’m pleased you found the post interesting. I was afraid that, in my drugged-up state, it might be rather rambling.

      Clochemerle was a satirical novel published in 1934 by Gabriel Chevalier. A French film was made based on it in 1947 and a French TV film in 2003. However, the one I’m thinking of is the English adaptation, which was screened on UK TV in 1972 (OMG, is it that long ago?), in 7 or 8 episodes. I particularly remember the explosion of the sabotaged Vespasienne, which they did in the lurid technicolour you might expect. ‘Clochemerle’ has become a byword for a commune riven by diametrically opposing views.

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