Former US House Speaker Tip O’Neill first coined the phrase “All politics is local”. In France this is particularly true as mayors have more power than their counterparts in countries where the office is largely honorific.
The power and the glory
A French mayor is the official representative of the State in his commune, even if the national government of the moment is not to his liking. His administrative powers are wide and overseen by the Prefect; the Public Prosecutor oversees his considerable judicial powers. A mayor and his elected council members administer the municipality’s property and assets, manage the communal budget, fix local tax rates and determine how these taxes are to be spent on roads, transport, schools, the environment and many other public services.
As the ultimate guardian of the public register, the mayor is responsible for endorsing all official acts that take place on his turf. He can – and sometimes does – refuse a marriage if he thinks it is illegitimate or veto registering a baby’s name if he considers it contrary to legal doctrine. His or her word is rule.
A mayor and his deputies are officers of the police judiciaire, which is roughly equivalent to, say, the Criminal Investigation Service. A mayor can order arrests and even (rarely) make them himself. Essential to his function is assisting the public prosecutor in investigations and guaranteeing that citizens’ civil and criminal complaints are duly registered and transmitted to the appropriate judicial authorities. He has complete control over the municipal police force and is responsible for ensuring public order, security, safety and hygiene in his commune.
With power comes responsibility
Once in office, a mayor can’t just walk away from his position if he blunders. He is personally and legally answerable to the civil courts, the penal courts and the Ministry of Finance. Mayors are sometimes prosecuted and could even finish behind bars for taking their obligations rather too lightly. Between 1995 and 2014, 130 mayors were condemned for faults deemed to have contributed to injury or death in their commune.
Accusations of financial impropriety are even more common. Former Nice Mayor Jacques Médecin, convicted for fraud, only escaped a long prison term by fleeing to Uruguay where he eventually died far from his beloved Nizza. More recently, Fréjus mayor Elie Brun was condemned for abusing his position concerning the granting of a licence to a local private beach. And at the moment, the mayor of Cannes faces allegations of impropriety brought by his political foes.
Such is the weight of responsibility that in this year’s municipal election, 64 communes couldn’t come up with a single candidate who was willing to stand.
So what’s the payoff?
Monsieur le Maire is seen as an obligatory right of passage to a higher national office (very few ministers have not followed this path) and there are usually associated perks, often an official vehicle and local privileges, along with a pay packet. France has 36,681 mayors but 34,672 of them govern communes with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. With eight pay grades, each mayor is paid according to the number of inhabitants in his commune. The 19,757 communes with fewer than 500 inhabitants pay their mayor a meagre €646 a month. Next, the 6,871 mayors of communes of fewer than 3,499 inhabitants receive €1635/month and the pay climbs until the final 41 mayors managing communes with populations over 100,000. They are paid €5,512 per month. Officially, that is.
Most maires have found ways to supplement their mayoral pay. In small, rural communes it’s often a second job as a farmer, vigneron or the local doctor. Others hold a second political office, usually as members of parliament (deputés) for which they are also compensated. Like all holders of elected political office in France, the position can be ephemeral, so they are not bound by the necessary 42 years of social security contributions to qualify for the full State Pension.
Could an expat be mayor? Some are, although they were first required to take out French nationality (or to have so by birthright). This does not apply to mayors’ municipal councillors, many of whom are EU citizens. Locally, Mougins School headmaster Brian Hickmore stands for councillor on the incumbent mayor’s list, as did the school’s marketing chief, Susan Dunnachie, before him.
As we go to print, les municipales are in full swing. With many British expats able to vote in these elections for the first time, will we see a swing towards a maire from Over There?