A growing number of expats in France are being elected to positions on the local council – including that of Mayor. British expat Jacqui Brown says her mantra in France has always been “Oui d’accord” – happy to say yes and help out , but you never know where that might lead as this story from Jacqui, a finalist in our 2014 Writing Competition reveals…
The day of the local elections dawned and it was an early start for me. Elections in France are always held on a Sunday and my Sundays always begin with a boulangerie croissant and freshly brewed coffee. I was up, dressed in a suitably French outfit (blue and white striped top and scarf tied at a jaunty angle) and waiting for the boulangerie to open at half past seven to ensure I was ready to do my two hour stint at the bureau de vote from 8 o’clock. Due to a rather slow brewing coffee, the morning angelus was ringing in my ears as I stumbled into the mairie a few minutes after eight where the first three voters were awaiting my presence. I wondered again what I had got myself into.
Since arriving in France ten years ago my motto has been to say “oui, d’accord” whenever I’ve been asked to help out. This has opened many doors and given me a wealth of experiences I would otherwise have missed out on. These have included afternoons spent on the toilet floor at the nursery school cleaning out Noisette the bunny, while encouraging a small group of two to five year olds to develop their language skills and ensuring the traumatised bunny came to no harm in the process. With pictures of food cut out from the weekly supermarket publicity we played the ‘what does Noisette eat?’ game. As many of the children came from a farming background I’m sure they thought the strange accented English maman was totally mad when she asked them if Noisette ate oysters and Nutella. But we had fun and this weekly session led to helping out on overnight school trips that gave me access to guided tours in museums from Brittany to Arcachon via the Loire. These trips, plus saying “oui d’accord” to the village magazine committee, volunteering at the library and running a Family Fun Day in the park helped my integration into the local community and led to my next adventure in France; being a village councillor.
My task on Election Day was to initial each name on a copy of the electoral register as the villagers arrived to vote. Most people brought their Carte Electoral with them so finding their voter number on my list was easy. The outgoing Maire who was sat next to me verified the identity of those arriving without their cards. Once signed in by me, the Maire gave them an envelope and they collected the list of proposed councillors discreetly left on the table. In the privacy of the curtained booth (positioned directly under the scrutiny of the portrait of President Hollande that hangs in every mairie) the list, amended or not, was folded into the envelope. Monsieur le Maire then pulled a lever on the ballot box, which simultaneously opened a narrow slot for the envelope to enter and flicked the counter over to register a new vote. Just to be sure, he also called out “a voté” (voted) for all to witness. The voters then had to sign themselves out on a second electoral list. Constant checking and tallying of how many had signed in, how many had voted as per the ballot box and how many had signed out was carried out by us scrutineers. Hugging, handshaking and kissing gave it a social atmosphere and most wished us a cheery bon courage as they left.
Before we had begun, the ballot box was locked and I was given responsibility of the key until six o’clock in the evening when voting closed and counting began. All day long the damned key burnt a hole in my pocket as I fiddled and worried at it. I couldn’t understand why our beloved Maire of the last thirteen years, who had decided not to stand for re-election, had given me the key and in doing so led me to believe he wouldn’t be present at the counting. When the evening angelus rang out six o’clock it was with relief I handed over my key and noticed Monsieur le Maire was indeed there to call a close to voting. With a small crowd of interested villagers as an audience the counting process began. This was when I noticed it was a double locked box requiring both his key and mine to open it.
Politics has never lit my fire but village life is something I am passionate about. Having been at many different committee meetings over the years I’m under no illusion that council meetings are going to be quick, to the point, fun and friendly events. However I live in a village with a reasonable number of British residents and if the French initiate and support the idea of having a British councillor then I am happy to hold my head high and step up to the challenge. We are lucky to have had a British representative on the council for the last six years who decided not to re-stand but did offer me a few words of advice: get a thicker skin, you’re going to need it. Little did I know that less than twenty-four hours after the votes were counted his words would be haunting me. I knew being on the council wouldn’t make me popular with everyone, but I had no idea my election had put one nose so far out of joint it’s owner would refuse to speak to me. Such is life in a small village.
Living in France is nothing like being on holiday in France. Sometimes it is frustrating sometimes it is rewarding, always it should be looked on as an adventure. Giving my time and getting involved in my new community has given my life a new purpose. It is with trepidation and excitement that I look forward to the next six years as a councillor, especially as our first three council get-togethers have involved Champagne, Kir and Whiskey.
Jacqui Brown is a wife, a Mother, an animal lover, a try-my-best vegetable grower & home cook who has been living the French village dream since 2004. I am still in love with France and the quirky rural village I now call home. Jacqui blogs at The French Village Diaries
Read more award winning short stories about France from the very talented winners in our 2014 Writing Contest