Now tha’ there is a ‘proper Mayor’. Mayor Aldred of Wigan. A fine ‘corporation’ on which to balance his chain of office, a double chin redolent of years of fine dining as he climbed the greasy pole, a hint of the Masonic, and a good lady wife who can be trusted to keep her knees together and her skirts at a proper length on ladies nights.
The role of Mayor in the British political system is largely ceremonial, a tourist attraction, someone to greet the visiting dignitaries at the opening of a new municipal swimming pool, to request that the mayoral office panelling be re-polished by imported French polishers, preferably when the budget is exhausted, and to involve a suspicion of impropriety in the awarding of the contract.
We like our Mayors as figures of fun, it is part of the national joke. Perhaps that is why we let people like Ken Livingstone, ay, and Boris too, be foisted on us by far away figures in London. The news that Sion Simon is hopeful of joining this cast of comedians was only to be expected. I’m not sure where he is going to balance his mayoral chain – on his ego perhaps?
We inherited the notion of a mayor from the French. True to form, we settled for the word, without any of the dignity of the true Maire. Much as we did with the word ‘Concubine’. We have a denigrated, ineffective, downtrodden, and lightly dismissed, Mayor.
In France, the Maire is a minor Sun God, around whom the Commune revolves. Certainly not a figure of fun. The elections every six years are a time of intense scrutiny, little else is discussed. Where communes are of less than 3,500 inhabitants, and 75% of the 36,763 communes are actually of less than 1,000 inhabitants, special rules – panachage – apply. Either individuals or groups can put forward their own list of citizens they wish to see serve the community – there has to be a minimum of 9 – but when it comes to the initial round of voting, you have the right to scrub out any name you think should not be there, and insert the names or names of your choice.
It can, and does, occur, that perhaps someone is notorious for having a dog that soils the pavements, think Vera Baird, they could find themselves put forward by popular acclaim for the role of ensuring the streets are clean and presentable. They could find themselves elected to that role – of course they can refuse to serve, but in a small community where everyone knows everyone else, they would be even more of a social pariah than they were in the first place.
Turnout for the local elections is high, for democracy at a local level is a very real phenomena here. The Maire has a dual role, he is the representative of the state, charged with ensuring that legislation made at a national level is carried out in his commune, but also with a wide range of local duties undreamed of in the UK.
He registers your birth, he marries you – you can have all the church services you want, but until the Maire has married you, you are not married! He decides what can or can’t be built in his domain. If you have to tangle with ‘Parisian’ governmental departments, he has a duty to intercede on your behalf – filling in the forms for you if necessary – there is no task too humbling for the Maire. If the electricity is cut off in the area, it is for the Maire to tour the area checking on the elderly and the vulnerable to see what they need. If the local boulangerie fails to cook your baguette to your liking, head to the Maire, it is his responsibility yet again.
We have the same relationship with Paris as people in the UK have with Brussels. It is there, busy passing laws, but until the Maire ordains it, they are just words that affect us not a jot.
Of course it is different in Marseilles or Toulouse, but remember, three quarters of the communes are of less than 1,000 people. And we get to decide who is ‘up for election’. Sion Simons would simply be knocked off the ‘list’ in the first round.
In our commune, the Maire wish to make a new road. They own all the land necessary – except for a bare few inches where the foot of a bridge needs to be planted on a piece of land that I own. No ‘Highways Commission’, no ‘compulsory purchase order’; just ‘John-Paul’ wrapped up against a frosty morning, waiting for me to go and buy my baguette, so that he might have a chance to see if we could ‘do a deal’. Indeed we could, next time the commune has the use of a JCB, he will clean out the remainder of my mill stream – in return, he can plant the foot of his bridge on a few inches of land that I technically own. We retired for coffee and shook hands on the deal.
In a report on local government (Vivre ensemble, 1976), it was argued that abolishing municipalities with less than 1,000 inhabitants would mean that some 300,000 councillor positions would disappear. People get involved in local politics here because it really does concern them. If not them, then their cousins, uncles, brothers or sisters.
That is the other big difference here – communities are still communities.