Get to know mayor for business help

If you run a business in France, your mayor can prove a useful work contact.

If you run a business in France, your mayor can prove a useful work contact.

As those who move here quickly discover, he or she has tremendous power, controlling large budgets which affect local firms – not just public services and utilities, but public relations campaigns, tourism and planning.

Nurturing a good relationship with your mairie can help your business.

British businesswoman, Clare Correia, 40, is an expert on how to make this relationship work well. She lives and works in the ski resort of Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, a thriving community situated at the foot of Mont Blanc, with a population of 5,700 and just 20 or so UK-born residents. Mrs Correia, who is married with two children, is a freelance translator and tourism consultant and spends a lot of her time working for the mairie promoting the town – providing information for journalists, planning press trips, and organising functions. She has lived in France for 20 years.

Jean-Marc Peillex, 55, has been town mayor for nine years.

His twin passions are the environment and business. He started a big mountain clean-up campaign and is also keen to use the town's natural, thermal springs more effectively.

Mrs Correia, 40, knew Mr Peillex slightly before he became mayor, when she was working as an estate agent (he is in the property business as well as being mayor). This has been an advantage but also means that she has to draw a firm line between business and pleasure when dealing with him. The pair agreed to talk about their business relationship.

Clare: “When I lived in Knutsford, Cheshire, 21 years ago, I didn't even know who the mayor was. In the UK, the mayor is a political figure, elected by the town council and has less actual personal power than he or she does here.

“Jean-Marc is a local celebrity as well as the head of the town. School children ask for his autograph. We get on well despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that we are both strong characters. A lot of people are scared of him, but I have found him very easy to deal with, so long as you don't waste his time.

“He is a very straight man – what you see is what you get. He sticks to his word, and doesn't waffle. Like most French mayors, Jean-Marc is very courteous and has a strong sense of protocol but hates wasting time on chit-chat. He gets to the point and if he doesn't like something, he tells me.

“One thing I appreciate about him is that he has the power, energy and work ethic to make things happen. That's a useful short-cut in business. In the UK there are so many layers of power and officialdom to deal with before you get to the nitty-gritty. Here, we do have more bureaucracy in some respects, but decision-making is simpler.”

How much contact do you have in terms of business dealings?

Clare: “Jean-Marc decides on my budget, so any PR plans I make must have his approval. For instance the “green” initiative, which has the slogan “La Montagne a L'Etat Pure” is very close to his heart and there will be promotional activity this summer. I get involved with the ski tourism from about September, through to April, and have just escorted a party of English press to the area, which was a costly operation.

“He emails me several times a week to check on progress and we have regular meetings as well. I work mainly from my own office, but pop into the town hall and the tourist office a lot, as they are just up the road.

“We also get invited to the same local functions and I help with events like the Junior World Ski Championships which were held here in January. I translated all the English speeches into French. I did this on a voluntary basis. It is important to show local people that you really care about things, and are willing to give up your free time to help. This will then have a knock-on effect with business.

“Jean-Marc knows that he can trust and rely on me. He doesn't speak much English, so I am especially useful.”

What do you think about people from the UK setting up businesses in France, such as house and apartment rentals, bars and services. Do you think they are taking money and employment from French people?

Jean-Marc: “Today, we cannot be protectionist in this country. It is important, especially in a tourist area, to have people coming in to start businesses. They bring a fresh outlook and investment. However, what does worry me is that there are parts of the alpine area, in Chamonix and Les Gets, for example, where one can't even speak French. There are businesses where absolutely everyone speaks English. This is excessive.

“Here, we are a family resort, and that is very much our profile. The foreigners who have bought chalets and live and work here, are completely integrated into the community.

“We have a number of people who work in important jobs in the town who are British, like Clare. I was born here, so I love this place, and have the people’s interests at heart, so long as they love it too.”

How do you see the area evolving, and what business opportunities will there be?

Jean-Marc: “We have a fantastic natural resource here, the thermal waters, which were discovered in 1806. We are the only ski resort with a thermal spa within the ski area.

"However, until recently the warm streams surrounding the spa source simply heated up local fish. Last year, we started using the water more effectively. For instance the water used for the spa treatments is recycled to heat the building.

"We have a new million-euro development project which will include a nursery and primary school, and three swimming pools, all heated by the thermal waters. We are also developing our summer tourism. Young people who live here, or come here to open businesses will be encouraged to stay with new housing, crèches and sports facilities. It's a growing town. So, we need people like Clare."

Tips for success

Clare Correia says the following will help improve relations with your mairie.

Make your mark on a daily basis, not just in business: Word will spread that you are a “town person”. When I first came here, no-one knew me, so I always made the first move, chatting and saying bonjour to everyone. The French won't come to you if you don't make an effort. When my two children reached school age my husband Denis and I got involved in parents' evenings and school outings. I helped organise English song sessions, bringing things back from the UK like Hula Hoops and tins of baked beans and generally being useful.

Keep your ear to the ground: Study local history, read the papers, chat to people so you can pick up on local concerns. Even if your French is good enough to get by, take lessons to improve. It's no good being a whiz kid with brilliant ideas if people are against you. It's best to know what you are dealing with when you work with local officials. You can't win, so don't try. Go with the trends, don't try to impose them. The French meet in bars to find out what's going on as well as socialise. Join in.

Combine business with pleasure: In France, we work to live, not the other way around. I adore cooking, and am actually working on a cookery book, so I can pick up recipes and ideas wherever I am. La cuisine régionale is always a good talking point with business contacts, including the mayor. Chatting knowledgeably about a splendid meal or fine wine might get you a contract. I also love skiing and winter and summer sports generally and so do my family. My business depends on tourism, so, everywhere I go, there is an opportunity to do some networking. There is no point in spending your life in beautiful France unless you enjoy it.