When it comes to settling in France it may be an initial surprise to discover what a key role is played by the local Mairie in your village or town. In larger towns and cities, it is known as the Hôtel de Ville but for smaller communes, the tricolour will be hanging above a door that is clearly marked as the ‘Mairie’.
All but the tiniest hamlets in France will have a dedicated Mairie, reflecting the essentially socialist nature of the country, and its role often goes beyond that of the Town Hall or County Council that you might be used to in your own country.
Most expats will want to develop a good working relationship with the Mairie once they occupy their new property. These are some of the essentials to be aware of.
How is the Mairie Organised?
The focal point of the Mairie is without doubt Madame or Monsieur le Maire, who is a locally elected official with an impressive range of civic responsibilities. While this is a part-time role and only nominally paid, the Maire heads the Conseil Municipal (Municipal Council) which has authority to plan and implement the allocated budget.
This locally-focused group normally meets monthly to discuss community affairs and consider any proposals by residents of the commune that require permissions or finance. The devolution of governmental power to this level of administration bears no resemblance to that of a Parish Council in Britain and new residents should be acutely aware of this, to avoid falling foul of the multi-layered French system.
The full range of responsibilities of the Mairie is considerable but includes many that will be of key interest from the outset to expats, when establishing their lives in France. The registration of births and deaths, as well as the legal enactment of marriages, all fall within the sphere of the Maire’s authority. In agricultural areas, you may even find that the Maire’s permission is required before you can have a garden bonfire!
Moving to France: First Stop the Mairie
It makes good sense to make early contact with the Mairie if you’re purchasing a French property in the area. This is the place to check on any planning permissions that might impact your new property (and register any children for education).
However, it is usually in the period immediately following your arrival that you should get to know your Mairie. The first step goes hand-in-hand with introducing yourself personally to the Maire, which is to ask for an official Certificat de Domicile. This is a simple one-page document, signed by the Maire, stating your name, address and start date of residence in the commune.
This document on headed paper with the profile of Marianne at the top carries considerable weight when dealing with utility companies, which invariably require proof of residence when setting up your accounts.
The Maire also has a personal overview of all applications for planning and construction, however minor. A well-presented proposal in French on the appropriate application form (there always is one!) will often work wonders and ensure that the Maire and his or her hard-working assistant are firmly on your side. This could be the difference between a basic notification of intent to carry out improvement works and a very lengthy application for full planning permission, to be approved by the Préfecture.
Social Aspects of the Mairie
The Mairie is not just a portal to the French governmental infrastructure but can also act as a vital social resource if you allow it to be. All Mairies are closely linked to their counterparts in other villages and towns in the area and the staff will have their fingers firmly on the social pulse of the local communes.
When you first register your residence with the Mairie, you will normally be required to complete a detailed form with all your personal data. At the same time, you should ask to be included on the Mairie’s email distribution list, to gain full exposure to the day to day life of the community, both near at hand and further afield.
While this means you will receive your fair share of notices about lost cats and dogs etc., the Mairie also issues publicity for a wide range of activities, including specialist markets, brocantes, concerts, festivals, clubs and societies, evening classes and many more. One of the most useful links will be for the regular activities at the commune’s Salle de Fêtes, which can range from lessons in pétanque and local cultural expeditions to an invitation for the annual repas des voisins (neighbours’ meal) or the Chasse dinner (definitely not for the faint-hearted!)
Ready to Visit Your Local Mairie?
Unless you’re relocating to France to become a hermit, it is essential to build a close and friendly relationship with your Mairie! The benefits are endless.
If you look at it as the key to the door of becoming truly integrated into your commune, then you will find that the Mairie and your new neighbours will go out of their way to make you welcome to their home. When Monsieur le Maire asks you personally to let him know when you will be away from home and who is your keyholder (for your security), you know you’re on the right track.
Enjoy your new life in la France profonde!
By Bill King
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