The French village where everyone is maire
Vandoncourt has been called “the village with 600 mayors”... only now there are more like 800 of them.
The village, in the Franche-Comté, got everyone involved when it started its own system of “participative democracy” in 1971. The scheme is still running today and its fall in population has reversed.
When the project was launched, there were 700 people living there and the population was falling. Now there are 860 residents and the village has no fewer than 28 active associations.
The associations form one of the pillars of the participative democracy project, along with eight commissions, open to the public, which hold quarterly public meetings on all topics affecting local life.
There is also an elected council and a strong policy of holding regular communal events, in which everyone is urged to participate. Mayor Patrice Vernier told Connexion: “These range from the village fêtes and meals, to building projects to conserve the heritage of our buildings, to communal litter picking and tidying up.”
When the originator of the scheme, former mayor Jean-Pierre Maillard-Salin, introduced it, it made national news. Headlines proclaimed Vandoncourt to be “The Village With 600 Mayors”, or even l’Irréductible Village Gaulois (after the Astérix comic strips).
Mr Vernier was elected mayor after Mr Maillard-Salin’s death in 1993 and has continued the policies. “It is a measure of how well thought-out they were that they continue, long after the initial buzz has worn out,” he said. “At their centre is a dynamic spirit, a wish to take the initiative, of conviviality and civic pride.
“From the mayor’s point of view, it is important that people are given the space to express themselves in public meetings or through the associations, and secondly that they are listened to, and their views discussed seriously and taken into account.
“Ultimately, it is down to the population of the village to make it work. “Modestly, I can say that our population is growing while that of many other small towns and villages is falling, so we must be doing something right.”
He said that although there was a lot of interest in the participative democracy project from other communes in France, he had no lessons to give. “I cannot give advice to others because I do not live there and do not know their circumstances. It is no good someone coming and looking at what we are doing and trying to copy and paste it because it will not work unless there is a real community spirit attached to it,” he said.
The eight commissions cover teaching and children; technical matters, communal buildings and roads; finance and budgeting; social and family affairs; civic life, including planning permissions, drains, and flower displays; culture and ceremonies; surrounding areas, including environmental matters, forests, orchards and the cemetery; and finally work, youth and economic solidarity matters.
Every resident is encouraged to join one or more commissions, take part in their meetings and volunteer in projects. Each has two or three designated organisers, who may also be on the municipal council.
Members are also responsible for specific sectors or streets.
Mr Vernier said he put a lot of emphasis on the organisation of festive events.
“They bring people together in an informal way, and you get to know people.
“So even though we are the size of a small town, the spirit is that of a village.”