From 'Dordogneshire' to Normandy, Brits race for French office
Sophie Kevany follows the campaign trails of Brits who have joined the race for French office in the local elections.
Armed with impeccable French and a mover-and-shaker ethos, a winegrower, a tile-maker and a football-mad businessman are among a growing number of British expatriates running for local office in their adoptive homeland on Sunday.
The Dordogne, a deeply rural swathe of southwestern France dotted with
picturesque farming villages and known for its hearty cuisine, has earned the
nickname "Dordogneshire" for its thriving British community.
The region counts between 5,000 and 10,000 British residents, and 800
British entrepreneurs, drawn by a laid-back lifestyle, warm climate, and lower
cost of living -- and who increasingly want a say in local affairs.
With 200 British families out of 2,600 inhabitants, a British population that swells to 900 in the summer months and a dozen British small businesses, the village of Eymet is at the heart of the trend.
"In the old days, people down at the market used to speak Occitan," the regional dialect, said Jean-Raymond Peyronnet, one of the mayoral candidates in Eymet. "Now it's more likely to be English."
Even though just 42 British locals have registered to vote on March 9 and
16, Peyronnet and his two rivals, all running on non-partisan tickets, have
signed up Britons to stand for the position of town councillor -- keen to
reflect the demographic shift.
"I really wanted two English people on my list. They can provide a point of
contact for the community," Peyronnet explained.
"It was amazing, everyone wanted me," smiled Julian Urriata, 41, a Briton
with Basque roots who recently opened a local stone and marble tile store, and
is one of five expatriates running for office in the town.
"It's time to give something back," said Tim Richardson, a 42-year-old
winegrower, who says he was warmly welcomed to the region 17 years ago.
For most of the British candidates in Eymet, next month's contest is firmly about local issues: Urrutia pledges to tackle dog mess and slash car speeds in the town centre if elected.
Estate agent Terrie Simpson, 47, mother of a teenaged son, says she is running to help find ways to "attract more young people with children" to
balance out the population of retiree expatriates.
European Union nationals can register to vote in French local elections,
with some 240,000 EU nationals including 24,000 Britons signed up across the
country. In 2001 Europeans won the right to run as town councillors, although
they need French citizenship to stand as mayor.
But Susan Dunnachie, a British councillor in charge of tourism, education
and culture in the well-heeled Riviera town of Mougins, warns would-be
candidates of the workload involved.
"I had no idea, when I stood, that this would be so much work," said the
59-year-old, who has spent seven years officiating at weddings and
commemorating French war dead.
"As an outsider, you can seen things that 'indigenous' people don't notice
anymore. But you have to point them out gently," added Tracey Glowinski, 47,
town councillor in the town of Bar-sur-Loup on the Riviera.
"The other councillors were amazed when I said I wanted to talk to the
bride and groom before the ceremony -- I found these chain marriages so sad!"
But Glowinski also said she felt her track record -- as an outsider --
needed to be "spotless."
"If you knew how many war commemorations I attended -- often as the only
member of the town council! And the meetings until 2:00 am, often to say
nothing at all," sighed Glowinski, who has decided not to stand again.
At the other end of France, however, 62-year-old Ken Tatham is not afraid to seek a third mandate as mayor of Saint Ceneri le Gerei, a Normandy village of 150 inhabitants -- and is also aiming for a larger goal.
The white-haired, trim bearded Leeds United football fan took out dual citizenship to allow him to become France's first English mayor in 1995.
Running on a centre-right ticket, Tatham is seeking a seat on the district
council for the Orne department, or administrative region, responsible for a
quarter of a million people.
"I retired recently so I've got the time to do this," Tatham told AFP. "The
person in the job at the moment has been there for over 18 years and it's time
for a change."