St Tropez loses 'le cool' over mayor's hardline regime: Julian Nundy finds slander and scandal at the heart of an election campaign on the Riviera

WHEN the people of St Tropez held a demonstration against the way their town was run, they carried a black-draped coffin. It was Good Friday and the protest, the first since May 1968, made the parish priest seethe with anger.

The problem with the 'Tropeziens', Father Michel Moncault said, was that 'they have made a fortune, but their IQ hasn't caught up'. In his Easter Sunday sermon, he told the devout: 'The seeds of death are hatred, aggression, slander and calumny.' He had never seen 'scandal-mongering pushed to such lengths'.

Father Moncault is hoping for respite next Sunday, when the inhabitants vote for a new town council and, perhaps, a new mayor. One after the other, the 28 councillors under Alain Spada, the current mayor, have resigned in protest at his allegedly authoritarian ways, and the prefect of the Var departement has ordered a municipal election two years ahead of schedule.

The problem is a clash of personalities between a mayor who has been trying to run St Tropez by the book, and a town which, like many on the Riviera, despises the book.

Mr Spada, 47, has been attacked for his management style in issuing grubby tracts that use words like 'ayatollah'. One former councillor said: 'It's the ancien regime. He's the king. You can't work with a despot like that.'

The criticisms of Mr Spada include his attitude to illegal parking: that he thinks nothing of slapping a clamp on a badly parked Carrera Porsche or of having a Swiss-registered Rolls-Royce dragged off to the pound. Shopkeepers complain that the municipal police, out early in the morning even in the off-season to slap on parking tickets, rush to penalise them for letting their pavement displays go a centimetre too far. He is also accused of being litigious.

Mr Spada says that, if his critics had their way, St Tropez would be completedly concreted over, the Mafia would be in charge, and little would be left of the charming red-roofed fishing village where Roger Vadim set And God Created Woman, simultaneously creating the Brigitte Bardot legend in 1956. Bardot paid the town her ultimate compliment two years later by buying La Madrague, the house where she still lives.

Otto Preminger, Cary Grant, Romy Schneider and Alain Delon were among the many who directed or acted in films shot in St Tropez. The list of others who graced the town with a visit in the Sixties and Seventies, when Paris Match featured St Tropez week after week, was equally impressive.

The yachting set still rolls in to the myriad restaurants. And last Thursday lunchtime, I watched as a fortyish father of two listened attentively (while he smeared sun-block on his face) to his answering machine before making a series of snappy calls on his cellular phone from the beach restaurant on the Plage des Graniers, and ordering a chilled red Coteaux d'Aix for himself and his blonde wife. The St Tropez style is far from the classic black-tie and evening dress elegance of Cannes or Monte Carlo. The French expression 'le cool' sums it up: casual chic. Even the ticket- toting municipal police, accountable to the mayor, are mainly tieless in smart navy sweaters and pale blue shirts.

The election matches Mr Spada, an independent conservative, against Jean-Michel Couve, the Gaullist National Assembly deputy for the St Tropez constituency. Mr Couve, a cardiologist, was mayor for one six-year term until Mr Spada beat him at the last election in 1989.

There was to have been a third list, led by Bernard d'Ormale, the husband of Brigitte Bardot. But his programme 'to make St Tropez live again' did not attract enough of what the boules-playing men on the Place des Lices call fadas - charitably translatable as 'eccentrics' - to make up a 29-candidate council list.

Mr d'Ormale had promised open-air council meetings and 'a brigade of pretty girls' to help tourists.

A friend of the far right National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who he considers to be 'a man of great culture and openness', Mr d'Ormale married Bardot last summer. He withdrew late last week, making a curious claim that Bardot's animal rights foundation had been subjected to 'pressures'.

Mr Spada last week held two meetings in the Renaissance cinema on the Place des Lices. Jean- Michel Baloup, the council's Parisian lawyer, told a crowd of about 300 that 'lies have become an institution'.

Answering the charge that he is litigious, Mr Spada said that if a prize were awarded to the plaintiff bringing the most cases, it would go to his opponent, Mr Couve, who had laid five complaints, including one for having his car towed away. Complaints by the council were often brought against people who, 'because it is St Tropez, think they can do what they like'. In this category, he included shopkeepers penalised for putting hooks in the town's ancient stone walls for clothes-hangers, and for pushing their displays farther and farther across the pavements. When the police swooped, seizing the goods, in 1990, this led to a counter-charge of theft against Mr Spada.

Three other cases are outstanding against the mayor. One is extortion. This was brought by two building promoters made to pay penalties for non-respect of building regulations. Their cheques went to the state. Another is slander, for alleging that a former council employee walked off with 30,000 francs (pounds 3,600) in parking meter cash. And the third is for 'slanderous denunciation' (reporting someone to the police).

Mr Baloup's expose of the town's legal situation included a rejection of the charge that Mr Spada is a manic car-tower. In 1992, he said, the police towed away 1,131 cars, compared with 2,564 in 1988 under Mr Couve.

It was true, he conceded, that Mr Spada sometimes lost his temper publicly. But the mayor, said Mr Baloup, was angry on behalf of the Tropeziens; it was their heritage he was protecting. 'When you laugh at the mayor,' he told them, 'you are really laughing at yourselves.'

(Photographs omitted)

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