2 Laroque from Boyle-ing Point 2

Patrick Boyle (62) gives the impression of being one of those people who is comfortable in their own skin. We are sitting with a coffee in the inauspicious surroundings of the Crescendo cafeteria at Carrefour in Argèles. Admittedly a choice of convenience over ambience! I am interviewing Patrick because he was recently elected to his town council in Laroque des Albères (just under 2000 citizens) on the list of Jean-Pierre Bagate, the gifted linguist who, until the election, led two French conversation groups each week from the Albères villages. Monsieur Bagate is now the newly-elected Maire of Laroque.

Before migrating to France, Patrick was a systems manager in manufacturing for over twenty years. “I got my degree in physics but then went into computing, and from there into systems management”. He and his wife, Caroline, have lived in France for 2½ years. All of that time at Laroque because ‘it ticked all the boxes’.

I wondered what motivated Patrick to choose the PO as his place to live and why he wanted to involve himself in French local politics? ….

JFR: So, Patrick, what decided you and Caroline on life in the PO as opposed to any other country and, for that matter, anywhere else with all the other wonderful options that France offers?

PB: Well, one reason we’re here because it is near Spain! Caroline is fluent in Spanish. We’re here because we like aspects of both Spanish and French life, but on balance we prefer living in France. Also, it’s handy for the coast. I’m determined one day to get myself a boat! I suppose, with all that it offers, North & South Catalonia is a natural choice for us. But we’d had a holiday home in Laroque since 1999 so we had given it a fair test run and really we just couldn’t wait to get here full time!

JFR: And I guess, with your venture into local politics that you feel settled here and happy with that choice?

PB: Oh yes! Certainly we are enjoying Laroque. And the new mayor has some great ideas for getting Laroque back on track since it is my belief that after 12 years under his predecessor there was, shall we say, some work to be done!

JFR: So you feel part of the community?

PB: I do and increasingly now my routine includes regular visits to the Mairie (town hall) and getting involved in the occasional civic duties. For example, in my short career in local politics (about four months at the time of the interview) I’ve already attended four wreath-laying ceremonies!! And the work is certainly improving my French! The truth is I only get by with the language, I suppose. I find I understand most of the council meetings. I have to say my fellow councillors make some allowances for me as a foreigner! But as my confidence builds I find I am contributing more when I have something useful or appropriate to add.

JFR: Just casting your mind back to the UK – did you have any experience of councils or being a councillor back in the UK?

PB: Not at all! If anything the complete reverse – I was an activist! I actively avoided local politics!! Too busy working and bringing up four children.

JFR: Presumably the French local political system is quite different to the UK. Can you explain how it works here?

PB: Not entirely! I am still finding out. But thus far I do quite like the system. And I was quite pleased not to have come bottom in the election. Jean Pierre had warned me that as the only foreigner I might get ‘cold shouldered’ and therefore dropped. But there were three other candidates behind me. I was pleased about that. In the French voting system for small villages (panachage), voters can basically choose anyone from the lists offered. However Jean Pierre had really done his homework and selected his list of 19 very carefully so they got through to a man (and 2 women). I think his 55% share of the vote stands testimony to that! But it’s all very flexible. Voters can ‘mix and match’ from the various lists so, actually, anything could happen.

He has five ‘adjoints’ who head up teams with specific mandates. I’m with the groups involved with culture and communication. One of our concerns right now is that to some extent, under the last regime, the village seems to have lost its old centre. Jean-Pierre is keen to put a heart back into the village. We are hoping to get things buzzing again in the old village centre – a central plank of that objective is to refurbish and regenerate the salle des fêtes (village hall).

I think Jean-Pierre Bagate knew from the outset of his campaign that it was necessary to represent the significant minorities of the village on the municipal council – to make sure that everyone has a voice in the Commune so that if they have concerns or queries about village life, they would have a council member to whom they can turn. For the expatriate community of the village I am just such a person. Not just for the Brits. But all the Anglophone expats, including Dutch, Swiss and Germans, etc.

I certainly share Jean-Pierre’s burning ambition to establish a village administration which will earn Laroque a reputation that is the envy of all in our region.

JFR: Does Monsieur Bagate’s list have a political ‘shade’ or position and do you share it?

PB: The opposite! It is quite normal for a mayoral team to tie their flag to a particular political mast. Jean Pierre has decided we are a not doing that. Party Politics, as such, are not on our agenda and I am very comfortable with that.

The thing which I guess I wasn’t prepared for is that the council meetings are public. Anyone can attend although only councillors can actually speak. And, prior to the elections, unlike the UK, canvassing is illegal. Instead there is a public meeting. About 200 people attended ours and, here, you can get away with some quite vitriolic ‘bashing’ of your opponents. For example I heard some comments which might be considered libellous in the UK, but, apparently, just fair game in France!

JFR: Patrick, do you have any advice for those who might wish to follow your example?

PB: Two things I think. First, ally yourself with a mayoral candidate who is sympathetic to the expat community and who is equally sympathetic to them having a voice in the community. Second, be prepared to take a supporting role. Foreigners can’t usually take up the salaried positions like the adjoints.

JFR: Colleagues on PO Life have reported that, speaking to one expat in a similar position, also in the PO, that after some months they felt a bit as though they had become the ‘token Brit’ and were working hard to be heard as a local resident rather than a local insurgent. Do you share this view? Or, is there any sign of that problem in your case?

PB: Well, no. Or perhaps not yet. Although one can imagine that happening if, for example, you didn’t quickly get up to speed with the language. Or perhaps, failed to contribute sufficiently. I suppose the key issue will be integration. But that is probably just as essential for any incomer in any community. And a lesson for us all in similar positions.

Patrick Boyle is certainly a shining example. Personally I think it takes guts after a mere 2½ years to take part in a local election. To make speeches in a foreign tongue and to give up so much time to the community amongst an already hectic life of renting and maintaining properties. A task to which I can well relate. Modestly, Patrick claims that his rapidly improving language skills have a link to his helping friends and neighbours sort out their computer and broadband problems. How so I ask? ‘Grappling with all those darn call centres!’ he smiled.

Thanks for your time Patrick and, on behalf of PO Life, we wish you and Caroline well and continued success with your contribution to the welfare of your commune in Laroque-des-Alberes.
[(© John Frazer-Robinson ([100jfr@wanadoo.fr->100jfr@wanadoo.fr]) is an author, commentator and columnist now contributing to the editorial team at PO Life.)]

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