Lyons' lion lays out the welcome mat

As France's second city prepares for next week's G7 summit, Mary Dejevsky speaks to its proud mayor Raymond Barre (left)

Lyons - The Germans have an expression, "like God in France", to describe a state of luxurious contentment. Raymond Barre, the 72-year- old politician and academic who is experiencing a second political honeymoon as mayor of France's second city, Lyons, seems a personification of the expression just now.

This week, all being well, he will experience one of his finest hours, as host to the heads of the world's seven richest nations in the annual summit of the Group of Seven industrialised countries.

Not an overtly proud or arrogant man, Mr Barre will bask unashamedly in the glory of the occasion and plans to show off his magnificent 19th century town hall to the full. Washing and brushing have been the very least of what has been done in preparation. A week ago, there was still sheeting and cables all over the floors; you shared the lifts with trestles and paintpots, and the smell of varnish was everywhere.

Thursday night's opening G7 dinner, with a secret menu that will boast the quintessence of Lyons' renowned cuisine, is to be held - weather permitting - in the loggia courtyard. The three day event will be wound up with a sound and light show over the Rhone for the citizens of Lyons, to compensate them for the inconvenience of having their city taken over by the security requirements of seven international leaders.

When you meet Mr Barre, it is evident that, one year into his mayordom, he is having a whale of a time. A former university economics professor, who has moved easily between the academic and political worlds for the best part of 40 years, he is best known for serving as Valery Giscard d'Estaing's prime minister from 1976-81.

But he has weathered the decades better than Giscard, and so have his politics. His statements are still closely watched and widely respected. He manages to combine a free-market pro-European stance with a practical social conscience - a combination that is increasingly being accepted by governments across Europe.

Mr Barre is small and his round face and smile give a general impression of rotundity - but he is actually quite dapper, despite his reputation as a bon viveur. He has the directness and spontaneity of someone who is at ease with himself and his authority.

Just over a year ago, Mr Barre thought he had made his exit from French politics by declining to stand for the presidency. He said at the time and still says that the only purpose of having power is to achieve objectives, and he judged that "the political and social conditions would not have allowed me to pursue the policies of reform and change that I thought necessary for the French economy". Almost as an afterthought, he adds: "And you know, I don't regret it one bit."

So why, given the standing and influence he enjoys, not just in France but in Europe, has he returned to frontline politics by standing for the post of city mayor - albeit of a city which is the second largest in France and which prides itself on having been the capital of Roman Gaul? "I didn't really stand at all," he corrects my terminology. "A deputation of local MPs and councillors approached me and asked me whether I would head their list for the council elections. In fact, I had quite other plans."

Mr Barre was approached as someone who had been the local MP since the late Seventies and chairman of the regional council since the mid-Eighties. But their main consideration - and the reason Mr Barre agreed to their request - was the political mess in which the city of Lyons then found itself.

The high-flying incumbent mayor, Michel Noir, had just been convicted of corruption, and Lyons had some of France's toughest housing estates and social problems on its periphery which were on the brink of exploding. If the political right was to retain power and the reputation of Lyons was to be rescued, the right's candidate for mayor had to be someone who enjoyed respect, if possible, nationally and across parties.

Mr Barre's list won a first-round victory. His original plan - it transpired when I posed this "indiscreet" question - had been to retire. Now, he has another three and a half years of political struggle ahead. Mr Barre, however, seems to regard it as a gentle and rather pleasurable form of combat - until you see him in the council chamber. Here, he rules with a rod of iron and some tart repartee. When a National Front councillor objected to the choice of music for the sound and light show as "too international" (with Bob Dylan), the mayor snapped back: "So what do you call Debussy, then?"

With the G7 summit on his doorstep (a gift from Jacques Chirac after he became president), he wants Lyons - a city regarded in France as inward- looking and hidebound despite its mercantile history - to promote itself to the outside world. "But that depends on the Lyonnais continuing the impetus," he says, adding, as though this sounds too negative. "And I believe they will."

t More than 5,000 people marched through Lyons on Saturday to protest about the holding of the G7 summit in the city and to demand that "other voices" be heard. The marchers represented trade unions, groups campaigning against unemployment, racism, environmental pollution, Third World indebtedness and a host of other ills. The march was led by the dissident bishop and gay rights campaigner Jacques Gaillot, flanked by actors singing "When will the revolution come?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Personal Tax Senior

£28000 - £37000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Customer and Markets Development Executive

£22000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company's mission is to ma...

Recruitment Genius: Guest Services Assistant

£13832 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This 5 star leisure destination on the w...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager

£20000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Account Manager is requ...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory