2017 12 – News From France


Destruction of local democracy

This is the nth episode in the saga of the destruction of local democracy in France.

Democracy is ideally government by the people for the people.  In practice it is government by the people via elected intermediaries.  And in actual practice, it is government by the people via elected intermediaries who identify with political parties.  The difference between the parties is big enough to create an illusion of decision making, but not so big that it might lead to significant change when the results come out.

This becomes obvious when you compare France and England, where

the very same measures (e.g. comprehensive schools or same sex marriage) are taken by governments on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

The alternance of left and right in France and Tory and Labour in England has produced the same results in the two countries: a developed social security system and withered industrial employment. The left starts a trend and the right continues it when next elected, and vice versa.

The similarity between parties has become so obvious in France that the traditional parties are in a state of collapse. The presence of the National Front is what keeps people interested in elections.

The population does not have much influence on events that affect them, at least not via the parliamentary system. Come to that, the government itself has a limited margin of manoeuvre. Once foreign steel is cheaper, no one will buy French steel and EU rules prevent the government from subsidising the industry to make it competitive. The government then is unable to protect its citizens from unemployment, and the citizens are unable to do anything about it.

At the time of the EU Constitution Treaty (which set out this no subsidy rule) the public expressed their opposition to it by voting to reject it by 55% against (with 69% participation). But that did no good. Two years later, in 2007, the Lisbon Treaty, an amended version of the same, was voted by Parliament.

Local democracy by contrast gives an opportunity for people to do things for their citizens, and for the citizens to know what is being done and the people doing it.

Take the example of a small village in the Haute Marne département, near Dijon.  The village (or commune) is responsible for the maintenance and distribution of its own water supply. The water comes from the rain that falls on it, pumped up in a water tower; used water is treated in purification lagunae. The mayor checks the water tower every other day. The inhabitants pay the commune for their water.  With the sums collected and some borrowing, the commune renewed the pipe work 17 years ago. Now the renovation is paid off and the commune is beginning to make a profit.

This is not a survivalist mayor intent on self-sufficiency. He belongs to a committee that administers the water supply at the level of the catchment area and he follows all the state regulations. But he has the expertise and a degree of control. Now the government is taking away responsibility for water from the communes.

The inhabitants will now pay somewhere else, and the commune is deprived of yet another source of income and another responsibility, after all their investment in time, money and effort. The mayor, interviewed by Froggy, was extremely bitter. Asked if he would continue, he said he and the other members of the municipal council, were not ‘flower pots’, i.e. just there for decoration, implying that if the government carried on like that, there would be no point in continuing.

That would be the end of a mass of knowledge and expertise about the organisation of the necessities of life. That would be the end of interesting things to do when you live in the country. The need to be in charge and do things for other people will go unfulfilled. Who cares? You might say, who cares as long as the water is safe, leave it to the experts.  What else do we leave to the experts?  If the experts know best, who needs democracy?  And, looking at this from a different point of view, if a political group says they would do a better job than the present system of government, how credible is that, if they haven’t fought to have the experience of the nitty gritty of being in charge?

The Mayors of France are up in arms about what the government is doing. Macron is standing firm against them, to their face. The Association of Mayors of France (AMF) met for its hundredth congress on 23 November and Macron spoke at the closing session, where he was booed by some. He told them off roundly for that: ‘I always ask my militants not to boo opponents, therefore I think I can ask you, the Mayors of France, not to boo either,’ he said. The day before he had laid on the red carpet for a chosen 1000 mayors specially invited to the Elysée palace, behind the back of the AMF, to try and ensure a more docile audience.

Some figures will show the scale of local democracy. There are 525,000 local elected representatives, 90% unpaid, the rest paid expenses. The AMF is composed of 35,528 Mayors (out of 36,681 communes); they represent mainly the interests of small towns and villages, since 31,576 French communes have less than 2000 inhabitants.)  AMF members belong to all parties.

A political force behind the AMF would be useful; but parties have lost their clout, and anyway no political party unanimously and strongly fights for local democracy. The leader of AMF is an interesting relic from the (very recent) past: Francois Baroin, a friend of Jacques Chirac, and a member of Sarkozy’s party (LR, Les Républicains). He has held several ministerial posts (finance etc); he was an MP but resigned when the cumulation of mandates was abolished, preferring to remain Mayor of Troyes rather than continue as MP. A fellow party member and possible future party leader, Laurent Wauquiez, accuses Macron of having no soul  (désert de l’âme) and of hating the provinces. But the party as a whole is not behind Wauquiez and Baroin on this.

The left has got a group, called ‘les Territoires en Colère’ [the regions are angry].

Macron has hardly any elected local or regional representatives in his party since his party is too new and on the other hand MPs can no longer be at the same time elected local representatives as they used to. This helps him be ruthless towards the Mayors, who seem to feel they are beaten already. Macron is the future, France will be governed by metropolitan experts with democracy as an empty principle.

Meanwhile back in the village, November is the season for using the commune distillery, housed in a lean-to next to the communal celebration venue (salle des fêtes, used for weddings and the 14th July) to make your own spirits from the remains of your wine-making from your vineyard, on the slope West of the village. You bring your own wood to fire the still, gathered from your own share of the communal forest.

All this is income for the commune and for the département, where you pay your tax for the alcohol produced. The neighbours drop in, and since you have taken the precaution of bringing a bottle of the previous year’s production, you can offer a drop of what’s coming. The still is a copper contraption sitting on top of a metal cylinder where you light your fire; the steam passes through pipes and the resulting liquid drops into a very unromantic plastic bucket. You measure the level of alcohol with something that looks very much like a thermometer. The whole production is poured bucket by bucket into a large plastic bin. The next day, the transparent liquid is passed through the still again.

This sort of thing does not interest everybody. But a society that claims to put freedom and choice as supreme values should take care that life in the country remains liveable. These communal installations need local management. If the government continues withdrawing resources at local level and telling willing men and women that they are not needed and their knowledge and expertise count for nothing, all these small things that make life interesting and bring satisfaction on many levels will disappear. People in the countryside are already feeling left out. In the Haute Marne the number of farms has fallen sharply and the remaining ones function on the smallest possible number of employees, sometimes zero. Other work, for example in food processing plants, is low paid and involves unsocial hours and long commutes. The National Front vote is high. Macron’s policy of destroying local democracy will make things worse.