A plot to overthrow the village mayor in the municipal elections
An hour is a long time in French politics. Two hours feels like for ever, but that’s the total length of time I have been in the business. My husband says the only reason to become a politician in France is so you can get your hands on Carla Bruni, but I have loftier aims.
I am part of a small revolutionary cabal planning to overthrow the incumbent mayor of my village in next month’s municipal elections.
We have gathered in a wine cellar to plot our next move. But all that’s happening is that my feet are beginning to freeze and a grey-haired man is droning on about his neighbours. From what I can understand, he doesn’t like them much.
I am not in the habit of attending political meetings; I was recruited out of the blue by the colonel a couple of weeks ago. “We’re mounting a challenge,” he whispered in my ear when I bumped into him outside the bakery. “This mayor does nothing but grant favours to his friends. We meet a week on Friday at 21.00. Tell nobody.”
The colonel (retired) used to be mayor. Then he was ousted. Now he’s planning a comeback.
I tell my husband. He tells me I should go on my own and starts listening to a Bruni record. That woman’s voice is beginning to irritate me, so I head off for the rendezvous.
When I arrive at the allotted place – the village boules pitch, where else? – there is no sign of the colonel. Surely in a village of 700 people there can’t be two boules pitches? Then, out of the darkness, a man approaches me.
“Madame, the colonel is delayed,” he tells me, shaking my hand warmly. “He sent me to welcome you. Follow me.” I am now beginning to feel like a heroic Resistance leader who has met her contact on the ground.
The man leads me to the garage, where there are already people sitting on plastic chairs. As is the custom, I walk around, shake each one by the hand and say hello. We are a motley crew: there is a retired policeman, a train driver, a couple of wine-makers and a woman rather improbably claiming to be Welsh.
There is an air of excitement and fear. This garage was probably used by the Resistance and here we are, plotting a coup, not against the Germans, but against a communist from a nearby village and his cronies.
A few minutes later, the colonel arrives. He takes his place at the head of the table. “We are not here to waste time,” he says. “We are here to be constructive.”
At which point, my co-conspirators begin to talk. And talk. Two hours later and we haven’t decided anything. Worse, nobody wants to listen to me. Doesn’t the English vote count? Or is my accent too execrable to be heard?
Eventually, the colonel turns to me. “Madame, we need your support.” Does he think I am a political heavyweight? Has he found out somehow I once attended the Durham University Young Conservatives Ball?
He wants me to join his list. Each potential mayor must muster a team of at least 15 other people. If we win, I would have a seat on the Conseil Municipal, which meets at least once every four months to decide on issues such as granting planning permission, public services and how to allocate the budget.
To stand, you have to be over 18, an EU citizen, be registered on the electoral roll and pay local taxes. You cannot be a civil servant, a policeman or a soldier. The jobs that offer any salary are reserved for those of French nationality.
There is another reason I am here. He wants me to round up the Brits in the village and bring them to another meeting.
“How will we get them here?” the Colonel asks.
“Offer them wine,” is my obvious reply.
“Good idea,” he says, handing me the list of village expats. “Will you call them?” Oddly enough, I’m not on the list. I ask him how this is possible.
“Did you register to vote before December 31, 2007?” he asks me. Of course we didn’t. My husband will be livid; bang goes his chance of bumping into Ms Bruni in a polling booth.
Surely if I can’t vote, there’s not much point in my being involved? Two hours into the meeting, I need to defrost my feet; I need a decent glass of wine. I make my excuses and leave.
I am not the only Brit getting involved in local politics. In fact, throughout France, our votes are being courted. My friend Patrick is on the list of his village in the Haute-Languedoc. He is confident that they will sweep to victory – with good reason. Their mayoral candidate’s family is believed to make up about a third of the local electorate.
Mary, another friend who lives in the Savoie, has been involved in local politics for years. She says it helped her integrate into village life.
There are some quite successful British role models out there – such as Ken Tatham, 62, originally from Yorkshire, who has been mayor of St Céneri le Gérai, a village of 150 people in lower Normandy, for 13 years and is going for a third term next month.
In fact, Tatham – who has been living in France for 38 years – is even hoping to become France’s first British regional councillor as well.
Whatever the mayor’s nationality, one of the nice things about having one at all is that there is someone just down the road to go to if you have a complaint. Admittedly, not that this necessarily means anything will actually get done.
I have been complaining about the dilapidated tennis court in the village for seven years. Each mayor promises to do something about it. Nobody ever does. Instead, we have a brand-new boules pitch and a car park. Far less use than a tennis court would be.
Maybe I will just have to stand for mayor and get it fixed myself. At least now I know how I would go about it. First, remember to register on the electoral roll. Then, make friends with all the big families in the village. Finally, invest in a heater and some decent wine. And if I could get Carla Bruni to come along and sing, I might even convince my husband that local politics is sexy.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group. She writes a beauty blog wwwbeautyorbeast.uk.
Her third novel, The Arnolfini Marriage, based on a romance that evolves around a van Eyck masterpiece came out in 2016. As well as writing regularly for newspapers and magazines, Helena is also working on a thriller called Welcome to Sweden that will be published in spring 2018. Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles is out in hardback and will be out in paperback in January 2018.
Helena was educated at Durham University and lived in the Languedoc region of France for eight years, where the family still have a home. She lives in London with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square January 2018
Welcome to Sweden; Gibson Square spring 2018