October 1997. We climbed the musty staircase of the Mairie (which incidentally once housed the local gaol) with some trepidation. The reputation of Madame A, the secretary, went before her. Get on the wrong side of her at your peril, we heard. And it wasn’t hard to achieve this.
We explained our mission: how to obtain a carte de séjour (residence permit). The Préfecture handled all that, but we thought it would be sensible to have the Mairie’s support.
Sure enough, she folded her arms and arranged her face into an even sterner expression. “Your income. Where is the proof?”
She grilled us about our revenue and intentions. We were already setting up a French company, but we must not be a drain on the resources of the French state. The fact that my husband was continuing the business he had run in the UK was immaterial. Where was the proof?
Gatekeepers and guardians
Madame A was gatekeeper and fount of knowledge and indispensable to the smooth running of the conseil municipal (local council) and the commune. She may have been daunting, but she was efficiency and integrity personified. I was reminded of her recently, when a TF1 News feature reported that people with the right combination of qualifications and experience for this job are becoming harder to find.
The commune is the lowest tier of government in France, the closest and most accessible to the public. There are some 35,000 in France. In a rural commune, you are likely to know the maire personally and most, if not all, of the conseillers municipaux (town councillors). The Mairie is the first port of call if you have a local problem or need to find information.
The secretary is the public face of the commune. The person who answers your questions, or knows where to find the answer, has competence in civic law, municipal finance and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the locality. When a new maire arrives after the municipal elections, he or she has their visions and objectives, but the secretary has a handle on the ongoing issues, knows where the paperwork is and provides continuity.
Struggle to recruit
The smaller rural communes in particular, already suffering from problems of financial viability, struggle to recruit. The TF1 reporters visited a village where the maire has to do all the administrative work herself, having been unable to find a suitable secretary. Some villages are getting around this by sharing a secretary. I know of two in our area that do this.
Finally, we managed to convince Madame A that we were not fly-by-nights. She softened towards us as time went by. After her retirement, she even greeted us like long-lost cousins when we met in the village. Her successors have been less formidable.
For anyone moving to France or buying a second home (Brexit notwithstanding for Brits), an early visit to the Mairie is a good move. It may not help if you are in a big town or city, but in a small rural community, it can smooth the path.
In other news
We wanted rain. At last we got rain. Last weekend, the heavens opened and delivered the kind of downpour we’ve been waiting for. The roads were awash and swollen rivers burst their banks in places. You could almost hear the trees breathe a sigh of relief.
That Saturday alone, we recorded 38 mm (1.5 in. in old money). According to the Statistic Freak’s records, the last time we had so much in one go was in September 2021, when it did nothing but rain.
After a particularly dry and sunny February, les giboulées de mars (March showers) have made a welcome comeback. For the month so far, we’ve had 104 mm (4.2 in) with more to come.
Even so, the aquifers are not filling up sufficiently to compensate for last summer’s searing temperatures and prolonged drought. In some regions, farmers are already concerned for their crops. Closer to home, we’ve lost shrubs that are usually drought-resistant. Our resplendent pine tree, now about 30m tall, has suffered. Some branches are dead, with brown pine-needles dangling forlornly from them. We hope it won’t die.
Tomorrow is the spring equinox, a moveable feast that falls on 19th, 20th or 21st March. Walking around the garden between showers, I notice how resilient nature is, despite the drought and the many frost nights this winter. Plants are pushing through the soil again, the buds are ready to burst and the birds have started their dawn and evening choruses.
It’s good to see life reawaken after what seems like a long winter. Joyeux printemps !
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I was amused by your description of Madame A, as I have a few similar anecdotes. In the first small commune we lived in, madame la secrétaire was also the retired schoolmistress and the maire’s wife. She was a bit scary and our children would watch amazed as she rested her enormous bosom on the old fashioned sloping desk, and then proceed to ask us similar questions regarding our income. We now live in another small commune and are lucky to have a very efficient and friendly secrétaire, who is shared by several villages. In between we were in a suburb of Toulouse, and some of the employees in the large mairie were formidable and I used to dread having to go and ask for the inevitable paperwork to do with school dinners and school trips etc. But those days are long in the past!
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I smiled at your description of the sécretaire in you first commune, since it reminded me of a teacher who taught us geography. She propped her copious bosom on the desk. We were all transfixed by it. In a small commune, I’m sure it’s easier to develop a relationship with the sécretaire than in a large town or city. Mind you, it took us a while to thaw out Madame A.
Joyeux printemps to you too, Vanessa!! Lucky you for having had so much rain – we’re still way behind and it doesn’t look as though we’ll be getting all that much more. Our mairie has already sent out a ‘save water’ warning, the precursor to the water restrictions…
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Until it rained about 10 days ago, I had never seen it so dry in the winter here. What we had is nowhere near enough. Unless we get a lot more soon, we’ll be on water restrictions again. We have to learn some rain dances.