Why the Only English Mayor in France Is Worried about Losing His Kingdom
Lichfield, John, The Independent (London, England)
If you were to invent a perfect French village it would be Saint Ceneri-le-Gerei. There is an old bridge over a babbling river. There are buildings of warm, grey stone, scattered among the wooded slopes of a narrow valley, overlooked by green hills.
There is a charming church in the Roman style with beautiful 12th- century frescoes. There are three restaurants.
Saint Ceneri could hardly be more French and yet its rich history has been shaped, for good and ill, by foreign missionaries and invaders. The small settlement, just within lower Normandy, was created in the seventh century by an Italian saint and hermit - Saint Ceneri himself - who conjured up springs and parted the waters of rivers by pointing his stick. During the Hundred Years' War, in 1434, the village castle was besieged for months and then demolished by 15,000 obstinate Englishmen.
After 561 uneventful years, the village fell, willingly this time, into the clutches of another foreigner - a Yorkshireman. For the past 13 years, Ken Tatham has been the mayor of Saint Ceneri-le- Gerei, the only British mayor in France.
On Sunday week, 9 March, he is up for election for the third time. There are no opinion polls in Saint Ceneri but Mr Tatham, 62, is likely to win by a miniature landslide.
How many voters would that mean exactly? Mr Tatham considers for a moment. "We have a population of 140, of whom 160 can vote," he said. "This is just like Corsica, although you'd better not quote me saying that."
Mr Tatham has lived in Saint Ceneri for 38 years. He is married to a Frenchwoman, Christiane, and has, in his own words, "two French sons". Without having a miracle-working stick to point, Mr Tatham is regarded as having done an excellent job in Saint-Ceneri. He was even awarded a Marianne d'Or, a kind of French municipal Oscar.
His position as village mayor is secure, as long as he wants the job - and as long as the job survives. But how long will that be?
France has 36,782 mayors, enough to fill a decent-sized football ground. More than two-fifths of all the 88,000 mayors in the 27 nations of the European Union are French. There are mayors of cities as large as Paris (population: two million). There are mayors of villages in the Massif Central which have just a dozen people. There are even elected mayors of five villages which ceased to exist 92 years ago, during the terrible battles north of the town of Verdun.
All of these mayors have budgets and legal powers and duties and municipal councils of at least 11 people (sometimes almost as large as the village itself). In France, democracy starts at the grass roots. But how long can such a lavish system of local government survive?
A report presented to President Nicolas Sarkozy this month suggests that France is absurdly "over-administered". The 96 departements, or counties, should be abolished, the report says. The 36,000 "communes", and their mayors, should be reduced to only 6,000 "super-communes".
Both suggestions have raised a storm of protest. President Sarkozy has promised not to scrap the "departements". He has given no such commitment to the survival of village mayors like Ken Tatham.
"The system may seem absurd but it works and it is not expensive," Mr Tatham said. "We are actually very cheap. And we are almost all that's left to give a sense of community and local contact. There are no more village priests. There are no more village school teachers. There are often no more village shopkeepers.
"All that is left is the mayor, who is …
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Publication information: Article title: Why the Only English Mayor in France Is Worried about Losing His Kingdom. Contributors: Lichfield, John - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: February 29, 2008. Page number: 30. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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