The hilltop village of Callian is a charming combination of narrow winding streets and commanding views over the countryside below. Hard to imagine, it’s just a few minutes from the busy D562 with its rapid access to the A8 autoroute along lake St Cassien, making the commute to Sophia Antipolis or Antibes about 45 minutes. The “strip malls” along the D562 are a sensitive point with Mayor François Cavallier, whom I met with recently.
“That commercial zone is an asset as well as an eyesore. But at the time we authorised it, it brought in needed business revenue and meant that locals could do more of their shopping close by. We needed the income at the time.” The commune is committed to making the zone more visually attractive by planting greenery over coming years.
Where the buck stops
Initially a secondary teacher and lecturer in philosophy, Cavallier became mayor in 1995 at only 27, when Callian had a population of only 1700. He has held the office ever since and is now vice president of the Conseil Général du Var as well. This co-operative link with other Var communes is important to the well-being of his village. “It makes a lot of sense to share and co-operate in areas like policing, water and rubbish collection,” he told me. The 47 municipal employees interact on a daily basis with neighbouring communes of Pays de Fayence and many decisions are made jointly.
It was a bleak rainy day when we met at his office and the hands-on responsibility of a mayor was brought home by an emergency call. Flooding meant that a stone wall had collapsed onto a road. Public workers on the spot needed his advice about closing the road and bringing in heavy equipment. When an important or expensive measure needs to be undertaken quickly, “The buck stops with me,” Cavallier murmured in excellent English after giving his permission to do the necessary.
Balancing the budget
Budgetary planning is foremost in the minds of all the mayors I’ve spoken to over the years and Mayor Cavallier is no different. Callian today has a population of 3000 residents and many are at either end of the age spectrum – retired people and young families with children. “From a human point of view it’s wonderful to have this sort of disparity but it’s also a financial drain,” he said. People live old in this healthy climate – last year the commune said farewell to Sister Emmanuelle, who passed away at 100 and is buried, like designer Christian Dior, in the local cemetery. But the elderly require more health care and welfare, while young families need schools and children’s activities. All this is financed out of the three million euro municipal budget. What they’d like is a few more active middle-aged people developing business activities locally, to balance out the financial strain of opening a new class every year at the elementary school. At present about sixty per cent of residents travel out of the commune daily to work.
And what about resident expats? “We welcome them and I even have one – Chris Bone – on my council.” Like other local mayors, Cavallier says that most expats come to his commune to enjoy it the way it is, not to make it into the place they originally came from. A sense of local identity, learning the language and adapting to village customs goes a long way towards successful integration, he insisted. “And we can learn from our foreign friends as well. For instance, our British and Scandinavian residents are accustomed to sorting their rubbish and are more sensitive to the environmental concerns we all have to face these days. They bring us fresh attitudes and that can only be good.”
Echoing their mayor, his fellow callianais also welcome foreign residents although there are some grievances about how the newcomers have driven up property prices to levels many locals can ill afford. “But those who sold to outsiders also benefited from this. You can’t have it both ways,” Cavallier pointed out.
A network of clubs and associations invariably holds the social tissue of rural communes together. In Callian about 30 cultural and sporting associations run from painting to archery and aeromodelling. “It keeps the locals in everyday contact with each other as a community,” the mayor told me.
Preservation of the surroundings is something that Cavallier’s team takes seriously. He was eager to explain his audacious pet project combining commercial viability and ecological perspicacity. “Photovoltaic farming” is an ambitious enterprise that he hopes will be economically profitable while making the commune energy independent. That is, if EDF agrees to allow a switch over in case of a general electricity failure in the region, such as the one that happened last November in Var and Alpes-Maritimes. He explained the project with enthusiasm: on the road to Mons is an old municipal dump owned by the commune, covering 15 hectares and now filled over with earth. An idea was born to generate electricity on the site using solar panels. The electrical output will be connected to the national grid and sold on to EDF. This ambitious project meant teaming up with experts, and Eneryo was chosen as the best commercial and technological partner. The ferme photovoltaique is unique in the eastern Var and will be in operation from 2010.
“It’s not only electricity we’ll get, but also income from Eneryo which will become our biggest payer of business taxes by far. And we will have converted an undesirable site into something useful.”
Callian’s well worth a relaxing stroll and a drink at one of the local bistros – at prices well below those on the Coast. In warmer weather, try a meal at the Rendezvous Restaurant on rue Haut Four – the terrace has lovely views over to Montauroux.
From Riviera Reporter Issue 131: Feb/March 2009