When 12,000 mayors wave adieu

Mary Dejevsky looks at why rural France seems to be no longer willing to serve
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The Independent Online
Tragedy struck Mireval on Thursday night: Louis Hallet, the 73- year-old mayor of the village, near the Mediterranean town of Sete, suffered a heart attack at an election campaign meeting and died. Mr Hallet, a Socialist, had been mayor for 18 years and was seeking a fourth six-year term.

To many of France's small-time mayoral candidates in tomorrow's local elections, the unfortunate fate of Mr Hallet would have seemed not just an isolated family tragedy, but a symbol of their plight. Local mayors in rural areas, the pillars of their communities, are a declining species.

This year, for the first time,there have been difficulties recruiting candidates to stand as mayors and local councillors; not in the big cities, but in small towns and rural areas. A record number of incumbent mayors - almost 40 per cent, or more than 12,000 individuals - are not standing for office again.

It would be easy to attribute this to the desertification of villages. Of 36,547 mayors in France as a whole, 25,000 are in communities of fewer than 700 people. All of them, in a system of territorial division that dates back to soon after the Revolution, are expected to elect a council.

A quarter of those not standing for re-election cite age as the main reason. But by far the greatest number of those stepping down give reasons connected with the job; they are weary and fed up. They feel their responsibilities have increased, while their power and ability to make a difference has been reduced.

One reason is the penal code introduced last year. This makes local mayors personally responsible for untoward events that take place in their area. Many fear they could be hauled before the courts at any moment, and given a hefty fine or even a prison sentence for something they do not believe is their fault.

The law was introduced to correct what was seen as the reverse problem: of mayors claiming that accidents clearly due to negligence on the part of the Town Hall were none of their business. But when one rural mayor was given a six-month suspended prison sentence after a youth had been hit by the collapse of a goal post on the municipal football field, he understandably decided to call it a day.

Another reason is the trend towards decentralisation. While this is welcomed by the mayors of big and medium-sized cities, rural mayors have found devolution a huge imposition. They find people expecting them to take responsibility for, as one mayor put it, "all the sins of the world" - unemployment, housing, the environment, roads, safety, when the solutions are not in their hands.

Nor is the money. Mayors are paid on a sliding scale according to the number of people they represent, so while a mayor of a big city can make more than 20,000 francs a month, the rural mayors mostly receive 2,600 francs (pounds 340) a month and so need to hold down a full-time job outside politics.

One of the mayors' biggest complaints, though, is that they are just not respected as they used to be. Partly this is because of the number of - mostly big-city - mayors who are being investigated or in jail for corruption. It is hard to divine, however, what they resent more: being tarred with the same brush as their corrupt colleagues, or the threat of being penalised for taking certain financial advantages that might once have been thought a mayor's due.

This time, after much bludgeoning, only five communities do not have a mayor to vote. If enough would-be mayors cannot be found in six years' time, the closure of town halls may be the only choice.