Looking back at my term as Councillor for Cotignac

Brexit took place at the end of January 2020, and with it, amongst the loss of other rights, my right to officially continue serving the Cotignac mairie (town hall). Only European Union citizens have the right to vote in French Municipal elections and hence the right to serve. I was therefore prohibited from running again in the election that took place on the 15th of March. Cotignac has effectively lost a native English speaker to represent and communicate with the foreign public but there is now a Dutch lady (artist) who will be responsible for that in the next term. I am not the only British national to serve on a French council; there are over 130 of us in France who have been directly affected by the cruel measures of Brexit, the exit of Britain from the European Union. It’s a big loss for the commune, I believe, with effects not immediately felt but will become more obvious with time.

I was elected in 2014 on Mayor Veran’s ticket and for the last six years my Councillor position has required me to volunteer my time to be the liaison between foreign nationals here as well as the person who took commands 24/7 from the mayor for any messages needed to communicate to the public via facebook and the official town hall website. I also had to attend monthly meetings, weekend ceremonies several times a year, more than half the associations’ events and take most of the high-pixel photographs necessary to create the annual town hall bulletin (a 58 page glossy magazine called L’Echo du Rocher). At council meetings we would vote on anything that would cost the commune money. Anything from road works to carreer advancement training for the staff, donations to other towns in their emergencies, to deciding how much in grants we would afford local associations was voted on. We would also often meet ahead of the official sessions (open to the public) to make sure we agreed with the mayor. Cotignac is a very active village throughout the year with its over 35 associations organising all sorts of events from film festivals, concerts, art exhibitions, wine festivals, sports events, and much more. It was a job that came with ups and downs, sometimes extremely rewarding but often frustrating and not without obstacles. But of course I aquired priceless knowledge and information, made many connections, and felt grateful for the opportunity to be amongst the leaders of this beautiful Provençal village that I have called my home for over 10 years.

You can’t please everyone – that was a motto that came into my thoughts more often than not. But boy did I try at first. There was only so much money to be able to spend on the various improvements needed in a village every year and when one part was given attention there was always another problem placed on the non-priority list and with it came criticism from those who felt neglected.

The PLU (zoning laws) were updated in 2017 and many areas of the village were flipped over from being constructible to non-constructible. Anyone who had qualms about this had about a year to speak up and if needed, fight to keep their land constructible (and therefore sellable at a much higher price). The people who missed this chance were understandably upset when they found out what had happened to their land. But zoning laws need to stay in place for 10 years before being updated and adjusted again. There can be modifications made but only in exceptional circumstances with lots of bureaucracy involved. There is a labourious effort in the process of creating new zoning regulations. For example, department and national requirements based on environmental protection as well as town/village development needs taken into consideration as well as public input. So the study process was tiresome and involved specialists to come and give public presentations over a period of a year and a half. For months, maps were posted all over the town hall entry area to show the various proposed changes and any resident or property owner could come and express any concerns or bring up any questions they had. Nevertheless the end product did not come without a little controvercy and protest.

As small a village as Cotignac is with its 2,300 resident population, 65 per cent of whom are over 60 years old and therefore mostly retired, the active population looks more like 700. Most of the residents still vote though and show up to do so every couple of years when there is a local, state, or European election. No shows are low and therefore you can say most people here are politically aware. So whenever there is a controversial subject being discussed at the town hall, people listen, participate at the public meetings and express dissapproval and/or concerns openly. Those sentiments sometimes transpired into anger. I once had a woman (who lost her constructible land due to the PLU changes) slap my arm away when I went to stay hello to her. She obviously transferred her anger personally onto me and I was shocked. Overtly racist comments were also made towards me by people that felt threatened, I suppose, by “foreigners taking over.” While helping at the voting booth one elderly man came up to me and said “it’s amazing that someone like you is sitting on our council.” When I gave a puzzled look he went further by saying “I didn’t mean that in a good way.” But this didn’t thwart my efforts at wanting to do my best, I moved on and swept negative vibes to the side, after all, I’m not the type to whinge and whine. Having been born in post-war Japan to a green-eyed, ash blonde American mother in the late 1960s, I knew a thing or two about racism. And I must admit that discriminatory sentiments did not suprise me as after all, Marine Le Pen (the racist, far-right, anti-immigrant former presidential candidate) is relatively popular here.

Being officially elected meant serving the people and so I went about trying to get to know many of the merchants in the village; some who had been here generations and others that had just arrived to start a new life selling this or that. Before 2014 I had worked for four years volunteering for the Parents’ Committee, raising money for the school children (for various activities outside of Cotignac) and in so doing already had the opportunity of relating to various business owners and local parents. So I had an advantage. What I learned from the merchants though, was that whatever the town hall did or was supposed to do for them, it was never enough. Whether it was to help establish terrace-use rights, eliminate market day obstacles that hindered easier access to their shops, calm neighbour business conflicts, establishing parking rights, needing more light, cleaning up the dog poo on the streets, needing to shut before midnight because of noise that bothered the residents living above them, there was always something that they felt the town hall could do more to help their businesses. And when I noticed that whenever one business was given aid, there was always another that complained as a result. No one was ever happy all of the time. This problem of cooperating with businesses and meeting their demands is probably the most challenging for any town council.

New ideas, however great they may have been, were always pushed to the side because the list of proposals, that were initially used by a team to win the election, needed priority. I shared my idea, for example, to rid the Place Neuve (also known as Place Joseph Sigaud) of cars and restore it back to how it originally was when first built, a boulodrome (Petanques court), not unlike the gorgeous Place des lices in St Tropez. It could be a place for children to play too, and be decorated with an old band stand (classic gazebo) in the middle, or a fountain. The mayor told me at the time that it would never be considered for this term, that any big idea needed to be saved for the next term. The term in progress was meant to stick to the initial proposals laid out for the public so that they could have clear goals for the village, to vote for. In otherwords, the team with the more attractive proposals would be the winner. Having said that I have noticed that the French generally do not like change and therefore tend to vote for the leading personality (in this case our social and amicable mayor) no matter what, as long as they have felt content in the past. Any opposing candidate would symbolise change and therefore did not appeal particularly to the comfortable elderly and retired community.

Some prosposals came to fruition during the term but not all. The primary school was merged with the kindergarden and given a massive overhaul and renovation complete with new cantine and a more spacious parking area behind it, a brand new medical centre attached to the new pharmacy was built, the grainage (entertainment building) was given a renovation and new elevator, the 12th century Chapelle St Martin’s exterior walls and roof were finally secured and fixed up, the sports stadium was given artificial grass and a new club house, the tennis courts were given a makeover, and the mayor’s 30 year wish, of finally getting a roundabout built (in order to slow down traffic) in front of the wine cooperative, came true. The Circle des Arts, a beautiful hall behind the main church, was also restored, and arrangements were made to help bring the privately funded Centre d’Art La Falaise to public attention.

During the term a generous private donor purchased, then began the monumental process to revive and restore the Hostellerie Lou Calen, a famous landmark that once hosted the adored French singer Joe Dassin’s wedding. It had been in abandoned ruins for the previous 15 years and it was now going to be fully restored. It was as if Cotignac had won the lottery! But no matter how great these projects are for a village, they couldn’t even start without the town hall’s approval of course. And sometimes, even with pre-approval, some details can be contested by residents concerned with optical changes in landscape or their views being modified. So the project of Lou Calen experienced some hiccups and learned nothing is straight forward in rural France no matter how great the benefits may be to the community. Parts of the retreat are scheduled to open later in the spring of 2020. When it fully opens next year this establishment will no doubt bring the most attention, particularly international, to the village of Cotignac, as a luxury destination for well travelled clientelle looking for the authentic Provençale village experience (be it art classes, cooking courses, outdoor sports or other) without the trappings of Michelin stars or other commercial hotel chain standards that place limits on potential. The location promises to provide expert service and top quality accommodation for its guests. Two restaurants – a terrace brasserie and wine bar, and another rustic farm-to-table style dining establishment, are planned. And my hope is that they will also provide a level of excellence that the other local restaurants can be inpired by and work up to. I can even see Cotignac one day becoming the gastronomic capital of the Var, and why not? We certainly have the picturesque setting for it.

The cherry that topped the sundae for me was Cotignac’s nomination in the popular television show, “Le Village Préferé des Français” for 2019, presented by celebrity Stephane Bern. Out of the 13 villages nominated in all of France, our village came in at number six and with it, a lot of media and tourist attention. It was this moment that made me feel that all my hard work, since 2012 and the beginning of Provence Living, in trying to get Cotignac more visibility, finally came to fruition. Our village was finally getting the attention it deserved and I felt rewarded.

Building permits saw a big rise during the term due to demand and anyone can see that there is a lot more development that has been going on in the village and particularly just outside the village on the East and South sides where parcels of land have turned constructible.

Where there was no time to complete all the proposals set back in 2014, the team up for reelection, led by Mayor Véran in 2020 will be sure to place them on their new list of “promise to dos”. The construction of a mediatech (multi-media library) that was planned for this term for example, did not occur. But the old kindergarden (that was going to be transformed into the medial library) was instead put to good use as an extra space for school childrens’ extra-curricular activities during the 18-month construction at the primary school.

The new Medical Centre building was a great success in attracting new and much needed medical personel to Cotignac. While the village will have lost three of its previously resident generalist doctors by late this year (due to retirement), it would gain two more in the next two years, in addition to physical therapists, a dentist, and even a new veterinarian clinic (that moved over from Carces) to boot. Whilst France is experiencing a general shortage crisis in doctors and elderly care personel, here in Cotignac we don’t feel these services lacking at all. And for this, we are very lucky.

The next municipal term will see the construction of a new gendarmerie (state police department) which will merge the Carces and Barjols’ state police personnel and equipment, amongst other projects. Thanks to our mayor’s many connections and vision (he has been mayor for almost 30 years), it was possible to convince state officials and local jurisdictions that merging, and therefore saving money, was a good idea. With this new facility, gendarme families with young children will help fill the extra spaces available in the main school as we do have a problem attracting young families due to the above average cost of accommodation. I expect there will be improvements in parking facilities also, to cope with the rising number of Summer tourists that descend each year on us like a swarm of insects. The 900-year-old chapel will likely be given further attention and the interior should be restored to show off the magnificent original frescos discovered during the term. I hope to see some restoration around the two Medieval forts too, with possible public access to admire the view from higher up.

In all good faith I believe things are looking up for Cotignac and its active resident population as well as its retirees for the next municipal term. It’s a shame I could not be allowed to continue but I am proud of my accomplishments: I laid down the communications foundation for the village in the name of a more efficient and better functioning website, an attractive and informative facebook page, and colourful, easy to read annual magazines between 2014 and 2019 and thousands of good high-pixel photographs. I have left knowing it will be easier for the person(s) who take over my duties. I will forever be grateful for the experience to serve my community and to those who have supported and encouraged me throughout the years. It was a true honour to have worn the badge of Councillor in the village of Cotignac.

My current sentiment is honestly more bitter towards British politicians that have led the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, the biggest mistake the country has ever made in my opinion. But I love France and I love Cotignac and so I will apply for French nationality (wish me luck, only 30 per cent of applicants get it!) and will carry on as I still have a lot to do this lifetime. And of course there’s much more Provence Living to share so stay tuned and thank you, too, for the support.