Welcome To The Blog

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by David Sugarman

Hello, and welcome to “By David Sugarman,” a blog in which I give vent to some of my experiences as someone who has lived and worked in France for well over 30 years. Just don’t expect this to be A Year in Normandy or How To Do Up Your Holiday Home And Avoid Paying Capital Gains Tax.

I spent almost 15 years in Paris and the suburbs and have now been in Normandy for around 18 years. In that time, as a translator and writer (and before that a trainer) I have dealt with way over 50 companies and communications agencies, many of them household names (if you’re interested, there’s a list on www.nouvelangle.fr). I have also been a local councillor since 2001 (it’s actually a bit less grand than it sounds). I’ve been immersed in French media and culture. So I have things to say about French society. Yes, I’m an Englishman, but I’m also proud to hold joint French nationality. So I am happy to identify with a lot of what goes on here. But not everything! As this blog progresses, I expect it will be the latter category that preoccupies me. That’s human nature for you!

Because I work with the French language practically every day of my life, I will have plenty of things to say about that, too. Don’t be put off if you don’t speak French, I’ll be making the language posts as accessible as possible.

So please come along here whenever you feel the urge, like and share anything that takes your fancy and make comments anywhere you think you have something interesting to add. I look forward to reading your contributions.

All the best,

David

Affairs of State

by David Sugarman

When François Mitterrand’s funeral was broadcast live in January 1996, viewers were rather surprised to see that the principal mourners were not just the former President’s widow, Danielle, and their two sons, Jean-Christophe and Gilbert, but also his long-term mistress, Anne Pingeot, and their daughter Mazarine, then aged 22. Those in the know had, well, always known about Mitterrand’s “second family” but everyone else in France had been kept in the dark. Mazarine’s existence had, in fact, been revealed by Paris Match a year or so previously, with a paparazzi snap or two, but no one had taken much notice. Well, I hadn’t, at any rate.

It eventually surfaced that Mitterrand had lived a double life throughout his presidency, spending down time with both families. The “official” family attracted the glare of publicity in ways that was often positive (Mitterrand’s wife, Danielle, was an articulate defender of many humanitarian causes who enjoyed an excellent personal reputation, while his brother-in-law, Roger Hanin, was a popular, media-friendly actor who starred in a long-running police series on television), but occasionally less welcome (his elder son, Jean-Christophe, got into very hot water over arms trafficking charges in Africa). But not a word was ever said about the “unofficial” family, and not a picture shown. Journalists and, presumably, politicians on all sides were aware of the situation, but they all agreed to toe the line: in France, everyone is entitled to live their private life in complete discretion, and a President was no exception.

Mitterrand did not live in the era of the smartphone, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube, nor in the era of 24-hour news. The current incumbent, François Hollande, is less fortunate. The likelihood is that practically every French President has had his share of romantic dalliances while in office. In 1899, President Félix Faure died in the company of his mistress at the Élysée Palace. In very close company, shall we say. Oh là là! There were persistent rumours about a friendship between Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and a well-known actress in the 1970s. It’s claimed that Jacques Chirac’s driver, charged with driving the President to his assignations, nicknamed his boss “Mr 10 Minutes (shower included)”.

So there’s nothing particularly sensational about the recent tabloid revelations about Hollande and the actress Julie Gayet. To some extent, Hollande’s private life has always been acted out in public. He met his original long-term partner, Ségolène Royal, in the late 1970s, and they both became part of François Mitterrand’s political inner circle in the 1980s. They both held a number of elected offices, Hollande becoming Leader (premier secrétaire) of the Socialist Party and Royal a prominent minister. Cameras were on more than one occasion invited into the couple’s home to observe their four children eating breakfast. When Ségolène Royal became the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 2007, no one doubted that they were still a couple. After the polls closed following the second round of the election, which was comfortably won by Nicolas Sarkozy, a heated row between Royal and Hollande was observed by TV cameras taking place in a well-lit room close to an uncurtained window. A raging argument over political strategy, surmised the TV presenters. Er, probably not: later that evening, it was announced that the couple were officially splitting up, and in fact had been living apart for some time. Hollande had begun a relationship with the journalist, Valérie Trierweiler, in 2005, but this had been kept hush-hush by the complicit media.

When it comes to sexual peccadilloes, Dominique Strauss-Kahn takes the biscuit. The escapades of the former Director of the IMF in New York made front-page news around the world, while it perhaps has been less well reported outside France that he is currently accused of proxenetism in a case involving a ring of high-class prostitutes in Lille. DSK, a former finance minister, was widely thought to be in pole position to win the Socialist Party primary in 2011, ahead of the following year’s presidential election. He had already been endorsed by several party luminaries when the chambermaid walked into his suite at the Sofitel New York. If he had gone on to win the Socialist Party nomination, he would very likely have beaten Sarkozy to the top job. So if Julie Gayet was destined to have an affair with a French President, she can count herself lucky it wasn’t DSK, I suppose…

Traditionally, everyone acknowledges that public figures have the right to shut the door office firmly behind them each evening, figuratively speaking. What occurs out of office hours is out of bounds. Especially if it happens in the bedroom. On questions of moral turpitude, even the most vulture-like tabloid press plays by the rules. No “pants-down” exposés, no “nanny tells all” exclusives. That’s not to say that there’s no investigative journalism over shady business dealings and exposures of all manner of financial corruption. But not over sex, marriage, cheating, affairs, illegitimate babies, and so on. If the TV journalists did know what was really going on when Hollande and Royal were seen having their very public barney in 2007, as I suspect they did, they kept schtum about it until the press release was published, putting the separation into the public domain.

But all that was changed by the taboo-busting Sarkozy, who turned his love-life into a very public soap opera and got caught up in the so-called “bling-bling” trappings of celebrity culture. François Hollande presented a contrasting image to Sarko in the 2012 election. He promised a “normal” presidency as an antidote to the perceived excesses of Sarkozy’s term. In a television debate between the two rounds of the election, Hollande made a long series of pledges about both the style and content of his presidency. One of them was: “If I am elected President, I will ensure my behaviour is exemplary at all times.” Unfortunately, it seems he was able to resist everything except temptation.

It is unclear at this stage whether or not Valérie Trierweiler will remain as Hollande’s partner. In truth, the French public have never been bothered whether or not the couple are married. The question mark in opposition circles has related more to the fact that she is living at the taxpayers’ expense. France has no official First Lady status but not only does a President require a “plus one” for formal occasions, there are numerous more informal duties to be performed which apparently justify a private office at the Elysée Palace with a staff of five.

The current scandal is being played out alongside daily developments in the uproar over the anti-Semitic content of Dieudonné M’bala M’bala’s show, The Wall, which has been banned by the French equivalent of the Supreme Court on the grounds that it constitutes an attack on human dignity. The ramifications of both of these affairs will last for years to come, certainly until the next presidential election in 2017. However, many of us struggling to make a living in France’s ailing economy now wish that the President and the Government could now get back to the job in hand of trying to engineer an economic recovery. After all, that is what Hollande was elected to do.

Not Funny

by David Sugarman

In the mid-1990s, it was hard to get away from a comedy duo called Élie and Dieudonné. They appeared frequently on light entertainment programmes on French television, and they alternated long-running shows in Paris theatres with nationwide tours, before eventually going their separate ways in 1997. They were an odd couple: Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, the son of a Cameroonian father and Brittany-born mother, was black, big and well-built, deep voiced, slow-speaking, calm; Élie Semoun, the son of Jewish Moroccan immigrants, was white, short and wiry, a high-pitched voice, fast-talking, neurotic. Their comedy routines played on the contrasts between them, principally of the stereotypes that they represented. Subtlety was not one of their hallmarks.

Self-deprecatory comedy can be effective at taking the sting out of racism and other forms of intolerance. But you have to be laughing with rather than laughing at. It’s a cliché to say that it’s OK for black comedians to use the N-word, that they are “claiming ownership” of it. It’s often said that Jewish jokes told by Jews are funny, but told by non-Jews they can be offensive. In the case of Élie and Dieudonné’s comedy routines, they sailed close to the wind: it’s a fine line between “self-deprecatory” and “derogatory”.

As I was starting to write this piece, I took a look at some of the pair’s sketches on YouTube, to remind myself of them: their heyday was 20 years or so ago. The title of one sketch caught my eye: “Cohen and Bokassa”. The two begin by playing children and start arguing over a ball (“it’s my ball…” “it’s mine now…”) and come to blows. They dash offstage and come straight back on as the fathers of the two boys. Each starts by defending his own son but the dialogue soon denigrates into a slanging match. The two adults start fighting just as viciously as their sons. Blackout. Ha ha.

So what does the slanging match consist of? A series of racial slurs. It starts out with the Jew attacking the Black: “The building’s full of you lot – so where are the cotton fields?” It gets a bit nastier: “Still on benefits, are you? It must pay for the bananas.” All right, these were less sophisticated times. In the UK we had Mind Your Language and Love Thy Neighbour in the 70s, not to mention Till Death Us Do Part in the 60s, so let’s just say that Élie and Dieudonné were simply mocking racist attitudes, and move on, shall we? No. We won’t. Because Dieudonné’s very next line is: “In 1945, Cohen, the Jerries should have finished the job.” Taken aback, the Jewish character asks the Black character to repeat what he has just said. Which he does, but in what the script of the sketch calls “in an African language” (unspecified).

Where is the humour in that line? There’s nothing new about satirising Nazism – Chaplin, Lubitsch and most notably Mel Brooks have all done it. But who could make a joke of the Holocaust itself? Dieudonné, that’s who. Not only in this sketch, but in numerous appearances in theatres and on video in recent years. One of his contributions to the corpus of French comedy consists of a song called Shoananas, an invented word combining Shoah, the term for the Holocaust generally used in French, and ananas, the French word for pineapple. The song parodies a particularly idiotic children’s song (itself more than a little racist) about hot chocolate, called Cho Ka Ka O. For this gem, and various other monologues, stand-up routines, sketches and Internet performances (including mock interviews with a well-known Holocaust denier), M’bala M’bala has been fined on a number of occasions. Reportedly, none of these fines has been paid. The French Minister of the Interior, Manuel Valls, has talked about inflicting a performance ban because of the anti-Semitic content of his latest show, which is due to transfer from a Paris theatre (which he owns, incidentally) to a nationwide tour.

Sadly, Dieudonné has a large and loyal following in France. I wish I could claim that they are simply devotees of alternative comedy, albeit comedy of a highly dubious nature. He has an engaging personality, he is a skilled and experienced performer. But this does not account for his popularity: unfortunately, the only conclusion to draw is that his fans share his views. Anti-Semitism is a crime in France. The expression of racial hatred is a crime in France. Every performance given by M’bala M’bala, not to mention press and media interviews, seems to contain a new example of his views. Just the other evening, referring to a French radio journalist who is Jewish, he mused, “I can’t help thinking of the gas ovens.” Not even Jean-Marie Le Pen at his most crass would have gone quite that far.

Dieudonné has been in the news a great deal across the planet recently. For once, he hasn’t particularly drawn attention to himself; the world’s media have been attracted by an even more skilful attention-seeker, one Nicolas Anelka. The story will be familiar to most readers. Anelka, a controversial French-born footballer currently playing for West Brom in the English Premier League, scored a goal in a televised match the other day and in his so-called “celebration” performed a gesture that is known as the “quenelle” (which consists of keeping one arm straight and putting the opposite hand to the shoulder or upper arm). This gesture was invented by Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, and forms part of his act.

Now, I write as one who once created a fascist salute. This fact is unknown to everyone except the cast of a student production of Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well in Bristol in 1982 (and a few hundred spectators). I had no personal delusions of grandeur: I was playing the minor role of the Duke of Florence (in whose army the play’s hero briefly serves), and we decided to play a short rabble-rousing scene in a style vaguely inspired by il Duce, aka Mussolini. I thought up a gesture that would get everyone on stage (plus a sound effects tape) to roar in approval (if I remember rightly, I struck my chest twice, left and right, with my right hand and stuck my arm straight up in the air). By comparison, Dieudonné’s salute is a bit of a damp squib!

My personal theory is that it is inspired in part by Peter Sellers’ portrayal of Dr. Strangelove. The character’s right arm has a life of its own as it battles to perform the Nazi salute at every opportunity, while his left hand struggles valiantly to prevent it. Likewise in the “quenelle” the straight arm is prevented from springing up into a Nazi salute by the restraining hand on the shoulder or upper arm. But what does it mean? It’s said that its meaning is anti-Semitic. Is there any proof of this? I originally intended to answer this question by posting a link to a file that a friend of mine shared the other day, containing more than 70 photographs of people performing the gesture against backgrounds that allow for no ambiguity whatever: synagogues, Holocaust memorials, Jewish museums and kindergartens, the Wailing Wall, street signs including the word Juif (“Jewish”) and Juiverie (“Jewry”), and so on. I have decided against posting it publicly, but I will be happy to share it with anyone who emails me. It is chilling.

Nicolas Anelka has tried to get out of a potential 10-match ban by saying that he understood it to be “anti-system” and not anti-Semitic. Believe him if you want; I don’t. The English Football Association’s “Kick It Out” campaign against racism in football is likely to see a stringent punishment applied to him. In France, President François Hollande and the Sports Minister, Valérie Fourneyron, have issued condemnatory statements about the use of the “quenelle”. Will it be banned? It may be utopian to think so. And unfortunately, I fear that it might actually come to greater prominence on France’s own football terraces. In France, there is no equivalent of the “Kick It Out” movement, and certain groups of so-called supporters – most notably those of Paris St Germain – are not exactly noted for their neutrality in matters of racial discrimination.

Tea Or Coffee?

by David Sugarman

There’s a deadly dull programme on French TV at breakfast-time on Saturdays and Sundays called Thé ou Café, a tedious, funereally paced hour-long celeb profile and interview that saps you of the will to live. Take my word for it: watch the Japanese cartoons or teleshopping on all the other channels, they’re far more rewarding. This dreary yawnfest is called Thé ou Café for the simple reason that each edition starts with the presenter asking the guest that most profound, incisive and psychologically revealing of questions: do you prefer tea or coffee? Freud and Jung, you should be living at this hour…

Give the French their due, they do know how to make coffee. It’s hard to imagine the odours of France without the pungent smell of espresso. At breakfast-time, though, they have developed the curious practice of dunking their jam-smothered baguette in it. Anyone who has spent much time in France, especially staying with a French family, will have observed this, although surely not tried it. You see the familiar sight of bowls on the breakfast table and look around for the boxes of cornflakes, Weetabix or… oh no, is this a muesli household? But no, there are usually no cereals. Instead, coffee is solemnly poured into the cereal bowls which you have to hold up to your mouth with two hands to slurp your coffee from. You then smear your baguette with jam, and enthusiastically dunk it in your coffee. And this is the country of cordon bleu gastronomy?

But at least the coffee resembles coffee. Which is more than you can say for the tea. The 21 miles between France and England never feel longer than when you could kill for a cuppa. Why the French have so little appreciation of the point and purpose of a cup of tea will always remain a mystery to me. All too often waiters in cafés are clearly not au fait with the mechanics of the tea-brewing process. They have small teapots albeit with ill-fitting lids; they have teabags (Lipton Yellow wouldn’t be my choice, mind you); and they have the means of producing scalding hot water. What could possibly go wrong? Well, they bring you the wonky teapot two-thirds full of tepid water, with the teabag still in a paper wrapper beside it, that’s what goes wrong. But it can get worse: order a thé au lait and a fair number of cafés will produce a small jug of hot milk for you to pour into their apology for tea

Buying decent teabags in France is pretty much a lost cause, of course. When Marks & Spencer closed down their French operations in 2001, it was an event of near-catastrophic proportions for many British tea-drinkers in France, who were forced to adopt complex strategies for teabag-acquisition missions to supermarkets across the Channel, or lean heavily on friends visiting from Blighty. Most tea on French supermarket shelves should be prosecuted under the Trade Descriptions Act (or, as we call it here, Directive européenne 2005/29/CE dite Pratiques commerciales déloyales). Especially so-called “English Breakfast Tea”: it’s a no on all three counts! There is just one variety, called “Thé corsé”, that can produce a good, full-bodied brew. It’s exorbitant, but cheaper than a cross-Channel ferry when you run out…

In Anybody’s Language

by David Sugarman

The French for “to call a spade a spade” is “appeler un chat un chat”, or “to call a cat a cat”. I was going to add “bizarrely” but it’s no more bizarre than the English version. Actually, in good French writing you might indeed refer to it as a cat at the first time of asking, but you would be advised to have a stock of synonyms at your disposal should it wander back into your text, so you can then call it “the animal”, “the pet”, “the creature”, “the quadruped”, “the beast”, and so on.

The French, you see, are very fond of avoiding repetition, and they go to considerable lengths to get out of repeating themselves, as if they were playing Just A Minute. At first, it seems as if they are highly erudite and are showing off their knowledge, but after a while you realise that the expressions they use are as lazy and clichéd as having a beret and a string of onions denote a Frenchman.

The problem may have started with Molière. The great French playwright and actor got a butchering by a contemporary critic named Boileau when he staged a farce, Les Fourberies de Scapin. Citing a piece of broad comic business involving hiding in a sack, Boileau snootily scoffed that he could no longer recognise “the author of Le Misanthrope,” referencing the satirical comedy of manners written and performed by Molière five years previously. Fair do’s: Boileau’s making his point clearly enough, pinpointing and implicitly praising one of Molière’s finest “serious” plays to highlight his distaste for the laugh-a-minute crowd-pleaser. For the critic, contrast a scene worthy of a bad sitcom with a work deserving a place in the theatrical pantheon and it’s job done.

These days, you regularly come across the expression “l’auteur du Misanthrope”. But it is not used in a pointed way. You don’t ever read “the author of Le Misanthrope was, indeed, a dreadful misogynist,” or, with a hint of irony, “in real life, the author of Le Misanthrope was actually the life and soul of the party.” No: it has become just a lazy way of saying “Molière” without repeating yourself. So you might write something as meaningless as “The author of Le Misanthrope was born in 1622.” It adds nothing, it’s just showing-off, and I find it annoying as hell!

The phenomenon is used by journalists without batting an eye. Two quite frequent examples come to mind. Just to avoid repetition, French Prime Ministers are often known as “le locataire de Matignon” (“the tenant of Matignon”), after the Prime Minister’s official residence. And whenever one of the Prime Ministerial incumbents doubles as a mayor (in France, politicians can and often do hold more than one office), another solution presents itself: the current Prime Minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, often makes his second or third appearance in newspaper articles in the guise of “the mayor of Nantes”. Even when the article has nothing to do with the city of Nantes or being a mayor. It’s not like referring to an individual as a “disgraced businessman,” a “former hostage,” or whatever, to give a new-readers-start-here gloss on the identity of the protagonist in a news story; it’s just a smart-alec lazy way of saying “the Prime Minster” without committing the cardinal sin of repeating yourself.

Other clichés abound. You can barely hear a news report of goings-on in Marseille (believe me, there are plenty) without it being called “la Cité phocéenne” (so named because it was a colony of the Greek city of Phocea around 2,600 years ago). And if I had a euro for every weather bulletin in which the highest temperature was forecast for “l’Île de Beauté” I’d be a jillionaire. Don’t look for it on the map: in English we say “Corsica”, and we don’t mind saying it as many times as necessary. But the French don’t want to repeat “Corse”. Of course not…

Although these two expressions are part of everyday French, they usually only occur once the term they are substituting for has been established. Not so, generally speaking, for the blackest of my bêtes noires, the utterly daft idea of calling English “la langue de Shakespeare” and French “la langue de Molière” (him again!). Now, this doesn’t allude to any particular characteristic of the language as used by Shakespeare or Molière (or, indeed, any of a good thirty-odd writers considered as being emblematic of their languages: German is “the language of Goethe”, Russian “the language of Pushkin”, and so on: there’s even a Wikipedia list). It’s just a lazy figure of speech intended to make the writer look clever. Fail! And in the country where the Académie Française effectively fossilised the French language round about the time of Molière, you try explaining to a Frenchman that English has moved on since Shakespeare’s time!

Open All Hours, French-Style

by David Sugarman

I first came across this when I was a student. I spent a year as a language assistant in a lycée in Paris, living in a little room in a sort of dormitory corridor. For lunch most days, I would make do with some bread and cheese and a yoghurt in my room. There were a couple of small corner shops within a hundred metres of my school, both part of chains long since defunct. A couple of days a week I gave classes from 11 o’clock to 12 noon. Except that my classes finished three minutes early, giving me just enough time to sprint up the road and burst through the door of one of the corner shops as the shopkeeper was trying to lock up and hurriedly acquire my bits and bobs of lunch.

The idea of a food shop closing for lunch – a 2-hour break no doubt – struck me as the height of absurdity. I was later to discover that this is an ingrained habit in the French retail universe. Not just small shops, but often medium-size stores and supermarkets, too. When you want to get a bit of shopping done during your own lunch break, it’s easy not to be best pleased. I have fallen foul of the practice more times than I care to remember.

My mother owned a small dress shop for many years in England. As far as I recall, the assistants worked half-day shifts, but my mother took an egg sandwich in tinfoil to the shop every day and she would munch at it in a quiet moment. She wouldn’t have dreamt of closing the shop at mid-day. But I can only assume that French shopkeepers and shop assistants must be made of more fragile stuff, because without their two-hour lunch break they would surely fade away!

The issue of shop opening hours has been very much in the news lately, not with regard to lunchtimes (truth to tell, things are progressing slowly: one of my local supermarkets has just put up a big placard with new opening hours “sans interruption”) but Sunday trading and evening opening. French regulations governing “l’ouverture dominicale” are a mass of contradictions, paradoxes and exceptions. Huge furniture stores like Ikea can open but enormous DIY emporiums can’t. Several categories of stores in tourist areas such as the Champs Élysées are authorised to open, but the same categories in other tourist areas barely a kilometre away, such as the Grands Boulevards, aren’t.

Late-night opening is also a thorny issue, with the trade unions claiming that the premium paid on employees’ wages is desultory. Cases are going through the courts, injunctions are flying around, and the government is talking about new legislation. But don’t hold your breath: the French haven’t quite grasped the idea that if consumers want to shop on a Sunday, in the evening or, heaven help us, at lunchtime, it makes good commercial sense to let them. In many cultures the customer is king, but we all know what the French tend to think of kings!

Nouvocabulary

by David Sugarman

Each year, I’m as interested as any other language nerd to hear the list of new words incorporated into the Oxford English Dictionary. How many would I use? How many have I never heard of? How many stem from technologies or cultural phenomena that are a no-go zone as far as I’m concerned?

Among this year’s crop, “selfie”, the word of the year, is part of my vocabulary although not my habits; my own TV-watching stops just short of the “binge-watch”; and as for my relationship with “twerking”, dear reader, you will have to use your imagination…

English is a highly fluid and adaptable language. Neologisms come easily; for a long list of reasons, it is the international language in which technological breakthroughs and new fashions and trends are generally first described. Just a little stretching and twisting of linguistic materials, and a term is coined.

Spare a thought, though, for the French. When expanding their vocabulary is concerned, much of the time they have to play catch-up. Naturally enough, France’s young people are constantly creating their own impenetrable argot, as do young people speaking practically every language known to man. But other portions of the population have a harder time pushing their language forward. Defenders of the French language battle valiantly against the rising tide of Anglicisms and have scored a few notable victories over the years (such as in the early 1970s, when “logiciel” was coined as a translation of “software”).

There is a relatively little-known annual event held in Le Havre called Le Festival du Nouveau Mot (scheduled, apparently, to coincide with the first bottles of Beaujolais Nouveau). Since 2002, the Festival has elected its “word of the year”. The list of past winners is not particularly inspiring: the best of a poor bunch in my opinion are “ordinosaure” (a prehistoric computer) and “attachiant” (describing a very annoying person you can’t get rid of). Both terms are portmanteau words (ordinateur + dinosaure and attachant + chiant). Frankly, once you’ve got beyond a smile of recognition, you can hardly say that either of them will change your life.

This year’s “word of the year”, I can breathlessly report, is “plénior”. It’s a combination, it seems, of plénitude, meaning “richness”, with an echo of plaisir, or pleasure, and senior… that good old English adjective that the French misuse as a noun to refer to older people, probably originally a contraction of “senior citizen”. So a “plénior” is someone getting on a bit who lives life to the full. Rather underwhelming as neologisms go. I wonder what the runner-up was…

Meanwhile, as I only live 45 minutes from Le Havre, I will make a point of attending next year’s festival, where I intend to campaign for a word I have just invented, which you will find (subtly translated) as the title of this article: Nouvocabulaire. I am toying with spelling it Nouveaucabulaire: a subliminal nod to the Beaujolais Nouveau on offer can’t do its chances of winning the vote any harm!

Choking On the Millefeuille

by David Sugarman

One of the oddest things about local government in France is that there’s no real difference between the role of the council administering an enormous city or a tiny village. It’s just a question of scale. Once a village is recognised as being a commune as opposed to being a hameau, it has a maire and a conseil municipal. Honestly, that’s what it’s called, even in a rural village of barely a hundred inhabitants. I should know: I’m a member of one such council myself.

The next set of “municipal” elections in France is scheduled for March 23 and 30, 2014, a two-round election. Over the coming months, I intend to devote a few posts to this ongoing saga. I will divide my focus between what’s going on in some of the major cities, where there are highly significant party political implications, and what will be happening where I live, the small corner of Normandy called the Pays de Caux where I have spent almost eighteen years and have been a conseiller municipal for the past thirteen years.

Before embarking on any of this, though, I think some background information about the structure of French local government may come in useful. There are so many layers that the French often refer to it as a millefeuille. That’s one of those delicious but rather messy pâtisseries made up of alternating layers of puff pastry and a creamy filling. Not quite a thousand layers, but who’s counting?

The lowest layer consists of local councils, of which there are in excess of 36,000 in France. In major cities, they resemble any other country’s city councils. But in very small towns and villages, the conseil municipal has somewhat wider powers than the equivalent local authority, which in Britain it would be a town council or parish council. Its tax-raising powers enable it to adjust local taxation to the level of services and amenities it provides. These taxes include property tax, two types of land tax and business tax. It receives state grants and a range of subsidies for specific projects.

The next level up consists of groups of communes. In rural areas such as my own, these are called communautés de communes, but in urban zones they have a slightly different form and are called communauté d’agglomération (an agglomération is a conurbation). They exercise powers on a collective basis that were once held by communes on an “each to his own” basis, such as rubbish collection and recycling or promoting business parks, and they are made up of conseillers municipaux delegated by each member commune. The mode of election to these bodies will be radically altered in 2014.

Now a few words about the cantons and the regions. There are 96 départements in metropolitan France (i.e. mainland France plus Corsica), to which are added five overseas départements (run in exactly the same way, but situated in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean). Each département is divided into a number of cantons, each of which elects councillors to sit on the conseil général (confusingly, the name given to the département-level council). Meanwhile, a région is made up of between two and eight départements, and there are regional councillors elected to sit on the conseil régional. The next round of conseil général and conseil régional elections, in 2015, is due to see very substantial reforms introduced. Not before time, you may say, but not all the proposals seem sensible when viewed from a rural standpoint. More about this in the future.

Meanwhile, if having a conseil municipal, a communauté de communes or d’agglomération, a conseil général and a conseil régional were not enough (and I have spared you the federations of communes that administer water services, electricity, school infrastructures and plenty more), we come to the topmost level of local authority: the préfet, a high-ranking civil servant who represents the French State. There is one préfet per département, as well as one per région. A préfet is the main man (or woman). What s/he says goes! This can, and does, entail countermanding decisions taken by democratically elected councils at any of the other levels (albeit less often today than at one time).

When I was writing about the millefeuille earlier, I saw that this particular pastry is called a Napoleon in some English-speaking countries. Very appropriate! The roots of this system lie in the rigid centralisation brought about by many of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reforms. Although these days there is a high level of autonomy at local level, it is firmly controlled by the State. When you have taken part in as many conseil municipal and communauté de communes meetings as I have, you realise that for all the Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité, the liberty is sometimes illusory!