All the stuff you never knew you needed to know about life in rural France.....and all the stuff the books and magazines won't tell you.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

A Magouille of Maires.....

La Faute sur mer digue 3Image by Sénat via Flickr
Most maires like the sound of their own voices...give them a vin d'honneur and they're away....usually for what seems like hours... while those present shuffle and cough as a hint that it's time to cut the cackle and get down to the business of the day, which is to attack the tables laden with bottles and glasses.
The speech is the tax you pay for free drink and, as with all taxes in France, it is too high.

You have to pity Sarkozy, though...he had to attend the maires'  national conference and the power of the oratory was such that he dropped off to sleep.
No vin d'honneur for him then.

While tedium seems to be obligatory, some maires display other talents.....talents variously described  as...

Arranging things....or

Promoting their commune's interests....or as I see it


There are also maires whose peculiar talent leads them to aptly be known as the fathers of their communes, but that's a different story.

To return to the arrangers of things....

For some years now, local councils have been obliged to seek tenders for projects costing serious money, rather than just passing it to the local guy on the grounds that as he was paying the Taxe Professionelle to the commune he was entitled to anything the commune had to offer in terms of the folding stuff.
Or doing it on a Buggins turn principle if there was more than one eligible firm.
Or putting the job Jacques' way as he will in return plaster the walls of your daughter's house with the 'surplus' materials.

Needless to say, this system does not always suit the arrangers of things, so they 'arrange' not to do it properly, which may account in some way for the spick and span 'arrangement' of the arrangers' houses and gardens....

Depressingly, in France this appears to be accepted as the norm, and people just shrug if it is mentioned...
What else, after all, can one expect?
Well, personally I expect a great deal better but I didn't grow up in France.

Recently a case has come to light where a whistleblower denounced a maire and his commune's financial director for questionable dealings with tenders for public works....quoting twelve instances.
This happened six years ago and in the meantime the whistleblower has been sacked.
No vin d'honneur for him either.

You can judge the lack of importance attached to questionable dealings with public money by the time it has taken the prosecuting authorities to get round to prosecuting, although you have to take into account that the prosecutors are appointed by the government and that the political complexion of government and maire are as one.

These things matter more than you might think...

I remember the local bypass.
It was to bypass a town which voted right wing.
So, under a right wing government the finds were voted and works started, involving a forty mile detour unless you knew that you could nip up the lane just before the roadworks and emerge on another main road leading to town.

Then the government changed to a left wing one.
The funds were diverted to start a bypass for a town which voted left.
The forty mile detour to get to the right wing town stayed in place for years...until the government changed again and the funds returned to finish the job.

Still, in this case, after due deliberation and after the maire stood down at the last elections, the prosecutors decided to go ahead with one charge from the original twelve, relating to the development of a housing estate in the commune.
Getting wind of this, one of the firms who had lost out on the tender jumped in on the act, claiming 50,000 euros in damages, this being the value of the works in question from which it would appear that they had been illegally excluded.

The by now ex maire, his financial director and the firm to whom the tender was awarded appeared before the prosecutor, who proposed to deal with them under a fairly recent procedure by which you admit your guilt, the prosecutor proposes a sentence which you accept and you just pass before a judge to have him or her confirm or alter the sentence.
Saves public money and does not give rise to indiscreet enquiry as to why the prosecutor is not asking many questions of the accused... .

The ex maire and his financial director happily accepted the slap on the hand of a 1,500 Euro fine each and walked away.
The boss of the firm concerned didn't.
He can expect a nasty day in court, not so much for what he is supposed to have done, but for not being cooperative.

The judge confirmed the sentences, but refused to allow the firm which had lost out on the tender to start proceedings to recover from the three 'defendants' the 50,000 Euros they reckon winning the contract would have earned them.

Their lawyer is most annoyed.

The court is unmoved.

The ex maire is still in the same political party.

The financial director still holds the same job with the commune.

The whistleblower stays sacked.

Why does this annoy me?
Why don't I just show how integrated I have become by shrugging?

Because it's my money and the money of people like me that these chaps are messing about with.
There is a system which is supposed to eliminate is defied...and the perpetrators walk away with just a slight dent in their well filled pocketbooks.

I haven't forgotten the interesting case of cronyism in another commune where an historic building was to be restored.
Apart from the usual performance in which the departmental architect of Batiments de France (think English Heritage) reduced a thirteenth century interior to something resembling a kitchen from Bricodepot, it stuck in my mind because of the electrical installations...or, rather, the lack of them.

The building was set well away from the village, out in the fields and all the restoration work was carried out using a generator.
Including provision for power and lighting in the building.

Some months after the job was finished, EDF rolled up and dug up the road to the village to provide power.
The spotlights in the roof could be used.
I said it was like a kitchen from Bricodepot.

Some months after that the fields between the building and the village miraculously acquired planning permission and were bought by the commune to set up a new housing estate....

Who was the lucky owner?
The then maire's wife's cousin.

Mark you, I could just be getting a bit cynical here.
The commune in question was in hillbilly country, and it demonstrated the ability of the French to be in the forefront of technical advancement.
Long before anyone had come up with cloning from biological material the hillbillies had come up with it by decades of inbreeding.....everyone in an age cohort looked like everyone else in that cohort and everyone was closely related to everyone else.
So it might be difficult to avoid doing a favour to someone to whom your wife was related.
But the timing of the arrival of  EDF still leaves me wondering....

And then there are cases where cronyism has fatal consequences. But not for the cronies.

The local council of La Faute sur Mer on the Atlantic coast, scene of 29 deaths when the sea breached the defences and overran a housing development, is one to keep an eye on, thanks to the close links between those owning land which was well known to be liable to flood, those awarding planning permission to build houses on the said land and those involved in marketing the said houses.

According to the maire's of the best known and accordingly expensive in France... the deaths lie at the door of the Prefet, for not ordering an evacuation in time.
Personally I think that the responsibility lies with those who knowingly or negligently made that land available for housing, but we'll see what the prosecutors make of it all.....just don't hold your breath waiting for them.
La Faute sur Mer votes the right way.

Not that it acts the right way.
Most of the people who bought houses on that development were not local....mostly townspeople looking to retire to the most of the dead were not from local families.
The survivors and the families of those who died have started an association to push for an enquiry into the events leading to the deaths and for proper compensation for those whose houses have been declared to be only fit to be destroyed.
Local people do not appreciate the activities of the association.....graffiti painted on the walls of houses owned by members...more graffiti on the walls of the cemetery where most of those who died in the floods were buried, encouraging locals to support the maire.....and, horribly, a woman visiting her father's grave spat on and insulted.

This illustrates the 'us and them' mentality so prevalent in French country communes where until relatively recently there was little social diversity and where the 'incomers' be they French or foreign, were regarded as prey, for the benefit of locals.
That a 'local' can feel in a strong enough position to spit on and insult the grieving  daughter of an 'incomer' tells you all you need to know about where power lies in la Faute sur Mer.

It also illustrates why the elimination of cronyism has an importance greater than that of misuse of public money.......
Cronyism defies the spirit of equality, equality of treatment.......

But what am I thinking about?
This is France....where equality is only a word painted above the door of the mairie.

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  1. Same thing going on (more or less) wiht my council (though without the shrugging). We call it Procurement and it is a lengthy, drawn out system designed to ensure a level playing field and the best use of whatever money is to be spent. Everybody moans about it and wastes money circumnavigating it. Nothing has changed.

  2. Steve, but is it also cronyism?

    On the scale of most communes in France the equivalent of Procurement is not too onerous...but when it comes to EU, that's another can of worms!

    It has always amazed me just how many local politicians' offspring work in the 'etudes' which prepare the applications for grants and lay out the projects once the grant is obtained...which leaves sweet FA to actually do the job after their fees are paid.

  3. A quick check in the dictionary for the meaning of magouille just reinforces how glad I am that we don't live in France full-time. I suppose if you don't speak French you could live in blissful ignorance, but to understand what is going on and have to put up with it....

    I know things aren't perfect in the UK either, but I really don't think it's as blatent and endemic as you describe, probably because small communities here have no locval power to speak of.

    I'd be really interested to know Costa Rica compares to France in this respect.

  4. Perpetua, no, the Parish Council doesn't have much clout, does it?

    It is the general acceptance of the existence of 'magouille' that makes me despair of France at times.....

    Not that the 'living the dreamers' will accept for one moment the scale of the isn't the image of France that they wish to promote.

    In my so far limited knowledge of Costa is alive and well, but since ideas like 'planning permission' are only just starting to make themselves felt then it seems just to involve employing half the family on the payroll and making sure the roadmaking budget is spent on areas where the alcalde and councillors live.

    Unfortunately the Costa Rican government is seeking the assistance of the EU in bringing the country up to speed on money wasting processes and tax raising no doubt the alcaldes will be flexing their muscles in more fields in the future.

  5. I get lost in the welter of twists and turns - but this reminds me of a French friend long ago, who spent 25 years and all her money suing the council for illegally building a road through her parent's farmyard and effectively destroying the home. The details were a nightmare, dirty dealings eventually came to light, and...nothing was done.

  6. Pueblo girl, sounds about par for the course.....

  7. I see the same in our funding systems, in procurement, in the arts... maybe not quite the outright corruption, but a similar effect of favoured suppliers, cronies and gross inefficiency

    On another subject, have you bought / read Winston Smiths book, Generation F. Now that really is something to rant about - and he does it well.

  8. Mark, and do these similarities lead to deaths? Not just on the Atlantic coast, but in the campsites destroyed by flash floods....the sites approved by councils.

    I put the situation in the U.K. down to closer acquaintance with the practices of the EU....the which institution was set up on a French model.

    And what can we do about it? We don't seem to have a voice any more.

    As to the book...yes, it's on my next list.

  9. Hello:
    We had to remind ourselves that you are, indeed in France and not in Hungary where wecan certainly cite many parallels to the ones you raise here[except for the one involving the sea as Hungary is landlocked].

    Budapest's districts all have individual mayors who seem to be able to make decrees, raise taxes, launder name it and, of course, support their cronies in the process . Indeed, the problems really do start when issues cross between districts....such as the lighting on one of the bridges crossing the Danube and connecting two of Budapest's districts. Such was the rancour between the two mayors that the lights finished half way across!!

    We could write a book, but are sure we know very little of all that is going on as Hungarian is fiendishly difficult to decipher!

  10. Jane and Lance Hattatt, the notion of the bridge with lighting only half way is marvelous!

    I think what bothers me about all this is that it is taken for granted.....from top to bottom.

  11. Every time I think I have it hard in the U.S. and dream of running away to another country, say, France for example, I read an article like this. Guess I'll shelve my moving plans for now. Bon chance!

  12. Melody J Haislip.....and from what I read in your blog I can see why you think of upping sticks...but if you do think of trying France remember the golden rules for having a happy life there: don't learn French, pay every exaggerated bill without question and make sure that all any local politician knows about you is that your nose is brown...

  13. thank you for your comment...lovely, eclectic blog you have here...
    greetings from North Wales

  14. John Gray, thank you...I found your blog through Phil and have been lurking there for some time....

  15. good contain in your blog.

    im a blogwalking.come to my blog

  16. Increasingly I find myself reading your posts about the true mechanics of French honour and civil justice, squinting through the little gaps between the fingers of the hands that cover my eyes. Edgar Allan Poe was a pussy by comparison to you. This is scary growd ups stuff.

    Your blog here really should carry a clear warning notice for readers of a nervous disposition Fly, and definitely shouldn’t be read after dark without at least one other adult in attendance and the correct wearing of ear defenders.

    “...but if you do think of trying France remember the golden rules for having a happy life there: don't learn French, pay every exaggerated bill without question and make sure that all any local politician knows about you is that your nose is brown...” Loved this. Made me laugh out loud. What a Mantra.

  17. Apiqputraspeech, most kind...I tried your blog but do not read the it Tagalog?

    Phil, The Pit and the Pendulum? Like the Beano compared to the reality of French public life....

    Glad you like the golden rules.