All stand for the president of... where?
France has dozens of mock states that see themselves as separate from the nation. They have their own mayors, flags and anthems – and their own cultural events. Jane Hanks crosses borders in search of microstates
Depending on whom you speak to, there are between 25 and 70 tiny territories claiming they are not part of France and having their own presidents and governments – and even customs officers.
These are the ‘micronations’, and the biggest and best known is the Republic of Saugeais in the Doubs, nestling on the Swiss border. Consisting of 11 communes with its capital at Montbenoît, it is based on an ancient settlement that grew up around an abbey dating back to the 11th century.
The area had such a strong local identity that in 1947 the owner of the Auberge de l’Abbaye hotel joked with the préfet that he “had to have a pass to enter the Republic of Saugeais”.
The préfet replied that if it was indeed a republic, he named the hotel owner, Georges Pourchet, as its president. Thus a nation was born.
After Mr Pourchet’s death his wife Gabrielle was elected in 1972, using a clap-o-meter to determine her popularity and fitness for office.
Her daughter, Georgette Bertin-Pourchet, followed in 2006 but she was elected under the new constitution by the 30 grands electeurs.
She is now 81 and has no children, so is unsure who will succeed the Pourchet dynasty.
She is proud of her role: “I used to drive my mother to functions and I find it amusing that a chauffeur can one day become a president!
“She really set everything in place and I have just continued the work she did.”
Saugeais has a president, prime minister, secretary general, two customs officers, 12 ambassadors and more than 500 “citizens of honour”.
Ms Bertin-Pourchet said: “They are invited to a gala dinner every year where we have up to 700 visitors from near and far including a couple who travel from Belgium every year.
“My mother introduced a flag, a shield, a national anthem, a stamp
and customs officers who issue passes to visitors used in a ceremony to
allow entry into the republic by the tourist office.”
Ms Bertin-Pourchet attends about 150 functions a year and is routinely invited by associations or military regiments such as France’s mountain infantry the Chasseurs Alpins.
She has been a guest at the Elysée Palace in Paris where she was received by then president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing and has also met another former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who visited Saugeais.
However this republic has no
political power – for instance it raises no taxes and its customs officers cannot impound articles – so is it all just a game?
Ms Bertin-Pourchet said: “Our real aim is to introduce people to our beautiful region.
“It is a historical place with a wonderful abbey and my mother worked hard to raise money for its restoration.
“Above all, we like to give a good welcome.
“My parents owned a hotel and restaurant and we always held the belief that the client was king.
“I love talking to people and enjoy my job as president because I can meet so many new people - and we have become known worldwide.
“We’ve even had letters from people in India and they made a television programme about us in Dubai.”
It is about tradition... plus a lot of fun
THE Association des Communes Libres de France can be said to embody very strong feelings of local identity not represented by the country’s administrative boundaries. It links around 25 microstates and its president, Gérard Truchet, is also president of the République des Canuts in Lyon.
Mr Truchet said: “Each commune or republic wants to keep an area and its traditions and heritage alive in a joyful way with a lot of humour. It’s all about bringing local people together in a convivial way.”
His Republic of Canuts is noted for its wines. “We are closely linked with our vineyards and many of our activities reflect that.
“In spring we celebrate the end of the pruning with a glass of wine and a great deal of festivity. There is a similar fête for the wine harvest in autumn. We are also twinned with the République de Montmartre in Paris, which shares these values.”
Every second year an états généraux or “general meeting of states” is held in one of the micronations and in 2012 was in the Commune Libre de la Citadelle in Montbéliard, Doubs. It has councillors and mayor, Didier Sittre, said: “Our commune was created in 1952 when it was a very poor district cut off from the town. It was designed to help individuals, often financially.
“Money is available from other sources now, but we continue to give practical help and put on activities to draw people away from solitary lives in front of their televisions and computers. We attract them on to the streets, so they get to know each other.”
At this month’s Fête de la Chandeleur the citizens will set up tables in the ‘quartier’ and give out free pancakes.
Mr Sittre said: “We are always happy when we get people out of their houses.”
He said the commune formula was chosen because it is familiar and helps bind people together.
“We do sometimes get people asking for housing as if we were a real mairie – then we pass them on to the correct authorities.
“We are serious about our role – but try not to take ourselves too seriously.”
This year’s états Généraux is in Nancy on September 23-25.