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Doughty burghers have no truck with the herd instinct

Half-way through the weekend I learnt that the Tony Garnier hall in southern Lyons, where the centre-right UDF grouping was staging its latest round of internecine warfare (otherwise known as a leadership election), had once been the municipal abattoir. Ten days after the outbreak of the "mad-cow" crisis, with Europe suspended between condemnation of Britain's farming practices and the carnivorous Continent's worries about the collapse of its own beef market, this was information I could have done without.

But the citizens of Lyons, eaters of red meat and practically every other animal part for centuries, were unworried. Promenading in costumes through the old quarter in near zero-temperatures in honour of one of the district's patron saints, they were gearing up for the feasting to come. To be deposited at Beef Street might have seemed to a Briton like a calculated insult but to a Lyonnais it was the start of a splendid night out.

Restaurants named Master Butcher and variations on the theme advertised not just beef in a dozen or more cuts but brains, liver, sweetbread, sausages and tripe. Only one hand-written menu seemed dimly aware of a problem. Rather than beefsteak it had decided on "Charollais steak" (after the cattle breed), with the following clarification: "Animals reared 30km from Lyons in grass pastures." If anything, that made matters worse: you almost felt you knew them.

His predilection for a hearty piece of meat or sausage and a decent Beaujolais is something that has endeared Raymond Barre - former prime minister, elder statesman and Euro-enthusiast - to the wary Lyonnais in the nine months since he became mayor. His rounded figure gave him a good start over his lean Socialist opponent, Gerard Colomb, during the election, conveying the subliminal message that he might not just be another apparatchik parachuted in from Paris for a nice soft retirement.

Now, both Lyons and Mr Colomb seem pleasantly surprised. So does Mr Barre, who has taken to the city in a big way. Unlike many Paris politicians with a provincial mayordom, he has moved to his adopted city and cast himself as its most fervent ambassador. As well as hanging European flags alongside the tricolour and Lyons standard at every opportunity, he solicits the day's menus from city restaurants and chooses whichever takes his fancy.

If his comfortable figure and food preferences are part of Mr Barre's success as mayor, the lean and hungry look of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, may well have contributed to his unpopularity both nationally and in his mayoral city of Bordeaux. The other key to Mr Barre's success could be that, at 72, he is not seeking re-election in five years' time and can concentrate on running the city rather than storing up favours.

While Mr Barre and the Lyonnais may be increasingly happy with each other, Lyons itself is going through a rough patch. For a city that has, I was told, always regarded the choice of Paris as the French capital to be "a historic aberration", this climate of self-doubt is seen as uncharacteristic and debilitating. The conviction for corruption of the last mayor, Michel Noir, contributed to it but what really brought their image problem home to the Lyonnais was the choice of Lille to bid for the 2004 Olympics. "People ... kept asking why Lille, without any of the culture or history of Lyons, should be preferred and they could not understand that Lille might need the Games more," said one councillor.

Lyons has its chance to shine at the annual summit of the Group of Seven industrialised countries in June but no one sees that as any compensation and even if the Olympics defeat - perhaps the first such defeat Lyons has suffered to a French city other than Paris - has some salutary effects, it will rankle for a long time.