A crash course in French local politics
Part three of our correspondent’s cycle through western France leads to history and geography lessons in the Niort town hall
Colm Keena in Niort, where he was interviewed for the local newspaper, Le Courrier de l’Ouest. Photograph: Marie Delage
Cycling between Fontenay le Comte and the larger town of Niort, the landscape changes from fields to open vistas filled with corn and sunflowers. This change in the terrain arises when I discuss local political culture with Pierre Lacore, in the town hall in Niort.
Niort is in the Deux-Sèvres department and has a population of about 60,000. Cycling into it, I am struck by how empty it is and how the town centre is so generously endowed with large, old stone buildings and imposing churches.
I call into the huge Hotel de Ville and ask to speak to someone. I am directed to Lacore’s office, on the third floor, and we get into a conversation about the area that takes up most of the morning. Lacore is the director of external relations with the town administration, has worked in Niort since 1988, and elsewhere in the department prior to that. He is native of Limoges and went to university in Poitiers.
He tells me that the backbone of the town’s economy is the mutual assurance business, which employs more than 6,000 people in a number of organisations that have millions of members throughout France and further afield.
In the 1930s, when some professionals found themselves with enough money to buy cars, a local man, Edmond Proust, decided that teachers were paying too much for their insurance, given the care with which they drove. He got some teachers interested in his idea and eventually founded MAIF (the Mutuelle Assurance Automobiles des Instituteurs de France).
When the war began, the Germans took most of the available petrol, and so the teachers rarely drove. However, they continued to pay their insurance premiums, so at the end of the conflict MAIF was in a healthy financial position. It began to branch out into other areas of insurance, and people in sectors other than teaching grew interested in trying to copy what MAIF was doing.
During les trente glorieuses – the 30 years of strong economic growth between 1945 and 1975 – the mutual assurance industry, centred in Niort, blossomed.
A sharp divide
Geneviève Gailliard has been the mayor of Niort since 2008 and her father was the mayor between 1971 and 1985. She is also a deputy in the national parliament for Deux-Sèvres, one of three Socialist Party deputies from the three-deputy department.
Despite the dominance of the Socialists, Pierre says there is a sharp cultural and political divide in the department. He takes out a map and points out a horizontal line a little north of Poitiers. The granite bedrock above this line makes for a bocage countryside full of fields and small farms, he explains, while the limestone land south of the line has a more open terrain filled with corn and other crops.
There is also a Catholic/Protestant divide, and when, in 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, the Protestants entered a period of intense religious repression.
According to Lacore, a lot of the Calvinist residents of Niort left for a more accommodating environment, though many also remained as secret Protestants. Ever since there has been a left-leaning, republican tradition in the southern part of the department.
Socialists doing well
The reason the Socialist Party is doing so well at the moment is that in the northwest of the department the regionally important automotive firm, Heuliez, has been in great difficulties and the local UMP is being punished for what is considered an inadequate response.
However, Lacore says, Ségolène Royal, estranged wife of the current French president, François Hollande, is president of the regional council that includes Deux-Sevres and three other departments, and has been supportive of plans for Heuliez to produce the MIA electronic car. Her party is reaping the benefits.
I ask why so many French cities have such impressive, similar-looking town halls. He says they were built at the beginning of the Third Republic (the late 1800s) as expressions of local power, and were inspired by the Hotel de Ville in Paris. Later, outside, we bump into local photographer Marie Delage, and then it’s my turn to be interviewed (and photographed) for the local newspaper, Le Courrier de l’Ouest, which sells an impressive 80,000 copies daily and has a restricted-access website.
The interview is conducted by student journalist Maud Gatineau, who is just back from completing a semester in Dublin Institute of Technology.
We discuss the difference between the two countries, which she thinks is huge. Ireland wins out on friendliness but loses on food.