Over the past few months it seems that every village has been planting a pibole to honour the election of a new mayor and municipal council.
According to government sources, mainland France has a population of around 66 million and comprises 36 552 communes, of which 30% have fewer than 200 inhabitants. De Gaulle famously observed that it was “impossible to govern a nation which has 246 varieties of cheese” and more recently governmental voices have been heard to mutter that this administrative proliferation is unworkable and ill adapted to modern life. Change is on the way.
In comparison with other EU countries, the same sources report that Germany, the most densely populated with 81 million inhabitants, has 11,563 administrative divisions, Italy, with 60 million, has 8,222 and the UK, having a population of over 62 million only 433. The contrast is interesting, although one could no doubt take issue with these figures, since there are no direct parallels in the powers which are devolved to the administrative subdivisions of the different countries.
For example in France the mayor of every commune directly represents the State in judicial and police affairs. He or she publishes laws, issues birth and death certificates, decides on planning applications and, together with the deputy mayor, is the only official authorised to perform civil marriages and partnerships, the sole forms of union recognised by the State (religious marriages have no validity in law). If you need to have your signature witnessed on an official document you go to the Mairie, rather than looking for the vicar, doctor or some other respectable worthy as you might do in England.
In his or her role as head of the commune the mayor, in concertation with the municipal council, is responsible for the school in terms of authorising the creation of a new class, organising school meals and so on, together with scheduling road maintenance and the upkeep and use of public buildings, including the church, the fabric of which belongs to the commune. He or she administers the budget, deals with emergency situations such as flooding, fires or snow clearance and is responsible for maintaining public order and “salubriousness” in the commune. (It is common to see notices posted up about an out of control cat population or the requirement for citizens’ dogs to behave in a civilized manner).
The French, as you would expect, have a fierce devotion to the ideals of liberty and civic independence and there is a certain amount of ceremony attaching to the people’s elected representatives which would seem incongruous in a tiny English village with its Parish Council and PCC. An example of this is the charming tradition, which seems to be local to the Ardèche, of planting a pibol our pibou to celebrate the election of a new mayor or councillor. The word refers to the Poplar tree, whose Latin name populus, gave the French peuplier, from which it is a short step to peuple (the people) or, in the Southern dialects pibol. (For years I have been amused and charmed by Markus referring to these trees as Popular trees – now I know he has a point!)
Nowadays any type of tree is considered appropriate to celebrate the election of new councillors. Sometimes they are planted together on the village square or other public space and sometimes individually on the property of the person concerned. In the old days apparently a bottle was tied to the top and the recipient was required to shin up the trunk to get it down. Considering the size of the saplings which are used these days that seems a bit improbable but once the tree has been planted and the French flag attached the little ceremony still ends with a glass of something, known here as le verre de l’amitié – the glass of friendship.