Pillars of the local community

Back in the UK, only once in my adult life did I strike up any sort of relationship with my local council. The experience was mutually unsatisfactory, centring as it did on primary school admissions, but it least it increased the scope of our interactions, which had until that point been confined to voting, my payment of council tax, and their collection of my rubbish. I believe this to have been fairly standard: in the UK unless your financial situation is extremely precarious, your local council will have only a minimal visible role to play in your life.

If we gave any thought at all to our local mairie upon arrival in France, it was thus in relation to the known quantities of rubbish and schools. Neither of these issues posing any problems, we promptly forgot that it was there except for a brief interlude—detailed in Beer goggles—during which we hoped that Monsieur le Maire might provide us with a glass of champagne, but were duly disillusioned.

During our first summer in France we had a string of visitors who, as we ferried them into our village from various excursions, commented admiringly about the electronic noticeboard that was situated on the roadside. How marvellous, they remarked, to have such an active mairie and so much going on in the local community. It must be incredibly useful to have all that information displayed so accessibly, they raved. Yes, we muttered, moderately ashamed that it had not occurred to us to avail ourselves of any of the services or animations advertised in lights on the board.

Still: old habits die hard. We had busy lives to lead, boulangeries to haunt, and, besides, who wanted to risk having to stand through another interminable, virtually tee-total reception?

It was after an entire year had passed, and a second invitation to the ceremony of New Year’s vœux had been set aside, that the error of our ways finally dawned upon me. I had taken a ride in a friend’s car, and she had pulled over at the local commerces to buy an éclair au chocolat, or possibly an escargot: I don’t remember precisely, but, oh well, peu importe. She pulled into a space marked out in blue. I considered this to be somewhat reckless: blue spaces are for permit holders only, and in Collonges au Mont d’Or there is an agent of the police municipale who seems to be employed exclusively for the purpose of catching non-permit holders parked in places where they have no right to be. Just as I was about to start hyperventilating about this instance of French disregard for the rules, however, my friend produced a blue disk, which she plopped onto her dashboard, having first adjusted the cardboard clock on its surface to reflect the time of our arrival.

Recognising a parking permit when I saw one, I racked my brain for any conceivable public office that my friend might have held to merit one. Finding none, I finally spluttered out my question: mais où l’as-tu obtenu ? Quoi ? she asked, perplexed, then, indicating the permit with what I considered to be an unhealthy degree of contempt: ça ? Oui, ton permis, I said. At this point, my friend burst into peals of laughter. Mais à la mairie, she responded, shaking her head at my obtuseness.

Once her mirth had subsided, it transpired that all residents of Collonges au Mont d’Or had a perfect right to stride into the mairie and demand a resident’s parking permit at any moment (except during lunch breaks and extended holiday periods, of course). But the very notion of my doing so was utterly absurd, because, évidemment, we would have been given one when we first arrived and presented ourselves at the mairie… In response to my dawning look of horror, my friend gasped. Mais vous ne l’avez jamais fait, c’est ça ? she asked, incredulously.

Of course we had not presented ourselves at the mairie, for goodness’ sake! Can you imagine ever turning up in, say, Chipping Norton, and presenting yourself in the local council offices? The very notion is absurd, and profoundly embarrassing. As arrivals fresh from London, nothing, but nothing, would have compelled us to march into the municipal offices and introduce ourselves. And yet, apparently, here in France, it was the done thing.

We felt the damage in Collonges au Mont d’Or to be irreparable, so it was with great joy that, when we moved into St Cyr au Mont d’Or earlier this year, my husband and I took a moment to stroll down into the village and present ourselves in the mairie. I had initially hidden behind Eadred the Bald’s back, for fear of mockery, but the official on the front desk was most kind and not in the least taken aback by our appearance. We were presented with the inevitable dossier, and left. On rifling through it back home we were overjoyed to note that it contained not just one, but two, parking permits.

The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d'Or
The mairie in St Cyr au Mont d’Or

Once we had become pillars of the local community, we could not stop. We were invited by that first kindly official to a réception for all new arrivals to the commune, which we attended last weekend. It was hot, and there were long speeches, but it was useful, and there was an apéritif, which included saucisson brioché (sophisticated for sausage roll) and wine. Afterwards there was a forum des associations, an annual event in which all the local societies and interest groups present their activities and allow you to enrol. Our enthusiasm for local events has reached such a pitch that the children are getting bored of listening to my frequent exclamations over the marvels presented on the electronic noticeboard.

The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm
The girls outside the mairie after the reception for new arrivals. They are wincing because of the sun, or because of my excessive enthusiasm

For such a centralising bureaucracy, local life in France isn’t half flourishing.

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If you are interested in reading other blogs about life in France, why not stop by Lou Messugo’s #AllAboutFrance linkup this month?

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28 thoughts on “Pillars of the local community

  1. Great story!
    Our local voeux are bien arrosé.
    I ventured into community service by being elected (a foreigner!) to the conseil des parents of the elementary school. Very interesting indeed. The principal told me not to expect to do much because they don’t like to work too hard.

    1. Ha! I was on the APEL of my kids’ old school and, boy, did we work hard…! You’ve set me wondering if I could gate crash an alternative (well watered) vœux ?

  2. You are so right – the very idea of venturing into the local council offices in the UK and saying you’d just moved in – they’d think you were completely bonkers. I like the idea of the “freshers’ week” of stalls on local activities. Are you getting involved in anything new?

    1. Perhaps Vera we should send you to try presenting yourself to the local council just to see what happens…? I have signed up for a way to help refugees locally and Paul and Bea are enrolled in the class of 7, which is a fete organised by everyone born in a year ending in 7. We all wanted to try more but had no time.

  3. Thanks for sharing your bureaucracy experiences, we have had our fair share with applications for long stay visas. It certainly helps to have a healthy dose of patience.

  4. Thanks for sharing such a fabulous lesson Emily. As Australians, it is unlikely that we will ever get a chance to move to France, but if we did, we wouldn’t think of presenting ourselves at the mairie. We have a virtually non-existent relationship with our council at home, apart from the rates we have to pay!

  5. I’ve never thought of comparing a mairie with a council office elsewhere, they are somehow just so quintessentially French, but you’re absolutely right, it would be very odd to walk into a town hall in England. Our mayor who is coming up to 40 years in office (such a democracy here!) splashes out on alcoholic voeux/vernissages/fêtes/any excuse, very regularly but the problem for me as a keen drinker of alcohol is that he offers whiskey or ricard! I like whiskey but not at midday and really don’t like ricard…so I’m left with coca 🙁 Thanks for linking to #AllAboutFrance

  6. Hi Emily. This was fun to read! I’d have to agree that, while a trip to the Mairie or the Prefecture CAN be terribly intimidating to a newcomer, there are real advantages to the way some of the French bureaucracy is organized. We don’t have the same set-up here in the U.S., where everything is terribly local and (therefore) fragmented. At least in France you can expect a reasonably similar service level wherever you go!

  7. I had no idea this was a thing!! My goodness there are a lot of rules in France 🙂 But it’s so nice that the local community was so welcoming AND that they gave you parking permits!

  8. Great post and a good read as always. I should know this – I’ve heard about these associations and that they are a good way to join in with the local community but not quite sure how to access them. Other going to a Freshman’s meeting for local govt are there other ways, do you (anyone) know?

    1. If you miss freshers’ fair, you should pop into the Mairie and ask them. They usually have a list with contact details. Thank you for stopping by.

  9. It was one of the things we were told about by anyone who was willing to give advice – make yourself known to the local Mayor in France (even though we don’t live there, it’s just a holiday place for us). We found it rather difficult to catch him in however, as he keeps very brief hours! Our French is also terrible, so we spent lots of time pointing and flapping! Good advice though! Glad you found yours helpful. #AllAboutFrance

    1. I am sure that by pointing and flapping you conformed happily to the French stereotype of the British so probably charmed the mayor. Thank you for stopping by!

  10. A lovely portrayal of French ways there – so different from GB, I agree. As new arrivals in Montpellier, a much bigger place, we were all invited to a reception where you got wine as a reward for standing through the mayor’s interminable speech. The whole concept of the commune is still very strong in France.

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