When I arrived in Cotignac for the first time I knew this was the place for my young family and me. I overheard people speaking English, the picturesque village was not too big nor too small, the cafés and businesses were all open and bustling and people were smiling and sipping rosé in the sun. The village is also right smack in the middle of Provence Verte and equidistant to Marseille and Cannes which made it convenient for my French husband to commute to his office in Toulon.
I had young children so I enrolled them in the local schools and tried to get to know other parents. It was painful at first – people do not easily take to outsiders in rural France so it took some consistent effort to apply myself at village events like helping out the parents’ committee functions etc. I participated in as many social events as I could – I talked to villagers and business owners, invited people to coffee to understand what they did here and how they lived, and how I could apply the best of what I saw and learned, to my own lifestyle. It helped that I was naturally social and outgoing and it worked: I pushed myself into the position of president of the parents’ committee (this part was easy as it’s a voluntary and thankless position no one wanted), and then found myself last November, invited to run for a Council seat with the mayor who was up for re-election.
The process of running a small-village campaign in France is not complicated and actually quite entertaining. With a population under 3,000 Cotignac is not considered yet a town or « ville ». Therefore expenses (like for printing) are not reimbursed by the state and the candidates need to fund themselves. Our team got together regularly ; at first once a week and then twice a week leading up to election day. We would share the expenses of supplying the « aperitifs » usually made by the ladies in the group who were naturally more keen to please and show off their culinary talents in the form of creamy quiches, anchovy dips with crunchy garden veggie sticks, delicate courgette pancakes, pissaladiere (a Southern French specialty made with lots of onions, olives and anchovies on pizza dough), gateaux and caramelised pastries like tarte-tatin (because sweets are always necessary at the end of any meal no matter how small in France) – all washed down with heaps of local rosé wine. Running political campaigns, I found out, is definitely not for the weight-conscious.
There were nine women and nine men that were invited onto the running team with the mayor and I knew only a couple of them. I felt nervous at first because seven of them had already served several mandates and had a ton of experience. So there I was, thrown in front of judging eyes, standing out like a soar thumb (I am of mixed race : Japanese, Irish, and German American and always pass for Hawaiian). I was always interested in politics and had opinions but knew little about the French system. But I was eager and willing to learn.
The mayor was the moderator of the group discussions and although he did love to talk he always stopped to listen when someone wanted to add to the dialogue. In the beginning we discussed everyone’s concerns about our village – every subject from the environment, waste management, urban planning, schools and parents’ concerns, to culture and the preservation of tradition and old architecture was brought up. But in a small village like Cotignac it is also important to discuss how best to encourage picking up after one’s dog waste. The elderly would also like to see more flowers and I found myself nodding in agreement to that.
Some other concerns were that the church did not have adequate heating, the 12th century chapel needed urgent repair and renovation, the primary school and kindergarden were too far away from each other, there were still many residents that needed to be connected to the central water supply, more security cameras needed to be installed to prevent crime, and with a high unemployment rate of 16 per cent (not uncommon in rural areas of France) the local economy needed to be tackled with a plan. There was also concern over transporation (or lack of it), and the need to attract more tourism during the winter and shoulder seasons. Affordable housing too, was an issue.
But talking about all this takes much time and coming up with a concrete programme to introduce to the public was not simple. Meetings started as early as 6pm and often did not end before 11pm. There was never any concern or talk about corruption but there was some name calling, some French ways of expressing (ie loud and wordy) total dissatisfaction over how the opposition handled important meetings or decisions, who should have taken the more diplomatic route, and how Municipal employees must behave in a neutral fashion at all times or face charges.
The French political campaign experience was not unlike being back at school. It was by far the best French course I ever took. It was also an essential education in understanding how local government is run. Every night I returned home from a meeting I found myself over-excited about the potential improvements for the village – I could not fall asleep for at least two hours. Sometimes I would wake my poor tired husband up just to tell them about what is going to happen to our kids’ schools or how the communal events building would get an elevator, or how public transportation would be improved with help from the « intercommunale » (a cooperation of nearby villages/communes) – the list was long.
During the campaign, I noticed no-one mentioned the social networks on the internet. There were only three others on the team who even had Facebook accounts though almost everyone (but not all) had email addresses. So, I suggested a publicity page for the campaign as well as a blog that anyone could read and of course an email account with which anyone could write to us and voice their concerns. My suggestion was adopted and I became the « communications manager », taking photos at all events, updating our progress, and making sure my public French posts were written without spelling mistakes. But the rural French still have a long way to go before being enthusiastic about participating electronically. Technologically speaking, this village is still behind by over ten years when it comes to communicating via internet.Throughout the campaign, we received a total of six email messages from the voters and 134 LIKES on our Facebook page (the opposition had 78). The registered voter population was just over 2,000.
We worked hard by coming up with a pamphlet that outlined our commitments (rather than simple proposals), reminding people of the admirable past and squeaky clean financial record of our mayor, and mentioning the appropriate educational backgrounds of each and every team member. This was one moment when I realised the many years at foreign universities would not only be weighed heavily (the French value diplomas and certifications more than most other countries) but were paramount for a good reputation. The fact that I was the president of the parents’ committee was an added bonus. When I presented myself at the public debate just before election day, I was dumbfounded by the applause I received. I felt accepted like I was part of a family.
By 8:30pm on election day the results were clear. Our team had won by a grand majority (64 per cent versus 36 per cent for the opposition) but the new laws prevented all 19 of us from being given a seat. A proportional representation had to be adopted so three seats were lost to the other side. However, these seats (should they be occupied by the opposition) serve as minority and therefore powerless. It was an uncontested victory for us and a defeat for the other side whose mayoral candidate served the community for over 35 years.
I went from being a foreigner-newcomer in a rural French village to elected official in just over four years. In hindsight it was serendipitous. But I worked hard too : I lived inside the village, I made myself visible, I visited business owners almost every day, and even helped them advertise themselves on a page I started called Provence Living (on Facebook). I was determined to make a difference and be noticed for it.
I love Cotignac. It’s only natural that I would want to contribute to its inhabitants and share it with as many people in the world as possible.