WE'VE BEEN spending quite a lot of time recently in the village mairie. 'Mairie' doesn't translate into English very easily, because there's no exact equivalent. In large towns you can say Town Hall, but that's much too grand for a village of 600 souls like ours. Much smaller villages will have their mairie too: indeed, there's a place so not very far from here called Romiguières where according to official figures there are only 15 inhabitants, but it's still classed as a commune, and thus has its mairie, and of course a maire (mayor) and a conseil municipal (municipal council) to go in it.
Anyway, our mairie is a handsome building in the middle of the village. Downstairs there's a big room opening directly on to the street, and it's large enough to hold concerts, meetings, dances, shows, receptions, public meals and so on. Upstairs there are offices for the mairie secretariat and the maire himself, a tiny kitchen and a large room which does duty for council meetings, smaller receptions and marriages. This is where Josephine and I were married last March with full mayoral pomp and circumstance.
What drew us again to the mairie wasn't anything to with village hatches, matches and despatches, but a meeting to introduce a local project that's been in the pipeline for some time: they're wanting to erect on the ridge of hills flanking our valley to the south a wind-farm consisting of some 30 éoliennes. This word, meaning wind generators, has an impeccable Classical pedigree derived from Aeolus, ancient Greek god of wind. Homer's Odyssey buffs may recognise him as the wind-master from whom Odysseus stole his stock-in-trade in a leather bag, all except the west wind which would blow him home to Ithaca. Odysseus' nosey crew opened the bag while he slept, the other winds escaped and all hell was let loose.
Something not too dissimilar happened in the mairie. We could tell there was going to be trouble as soon as we arrived: knots of unfamiliar men and women, dressed as only so-called environmental protesters know how, stood about outside with petitions to sign and with banners and badges and loudspeakers proclaiming their undying opposition to the ZDE, mostly on the grounds, it seemed, that the wind-farm project would simply put money into capitalist investors' pockets and would bring no local benefit. ZDE stands for Zone de Développement Eolien, wind-farm development zone, but we wouldn't have known this if we hadn't previously read an excellent presentation document about it prepared by one of the deputy maires, an environmental engineer who presumably knew what he was talking about.
The meeting was opened by the village maire, a wily local politician with many years' experience of dealing with noisy opposition. During his opening remarks the anti-brigade poured in, chanting, whistling, shouting, hooting, demanding that the meeting be adjourned until a larger hall could be found. The maire, undaunted, simply turned up the volume of the loudspeaker system, the equivalent of opening up the heavy artillery, until his already rasping and penetrating voice could probably be heard on the hilltops where it was proposed to site the éoliennes. The opposition raised its sights accordingly. The noise was titanic, elemental, deafening. The opposition became threatening: at any moment things could turn very nasty. Any ideas anyone might have had for a free, frank, decent and civilised exchange of views were blasted out of existence. I didn't think I'd ever been caught up in such a vicious demonstration of organised mob disruption. It wasn't enormously agreeable.
In the end Josephine and I came to the conclusion that if the wind-farm scheme was opposed by such people, then clearly it had a lot going for it and we should support it wholeheartedly. But then maybe it didn't matter what anybody thought: finally exasperated by the anti-mob the deputy maire, whose scheme it was, simply said eh bien, we have the power to put it through, and through it will go. A mistake, perhaps, and one that led to NON AU ZDE (No to the ZDE) being daubed all over local roads and elsewhere, a sort of pollution far worse than any nuisance the éoliennes might cause.
The next time I saw the maire I commended him in an ex-headmasterly way for his steadfastness in the face of such extraordinary verbal aggression. Oui, he said, as he always does when you give him the credit for anything. Ce sont des anarchistes, des gens très dangéreux. Ils ne sont pas d'ici, non plus. They're anarchists, very dangerous people. They're not from round here, either.
* * *
A FEW nights later we entertained a Swiss youth orchestra in the village church. 52-strong, the largest ensemble the village concerts association has ever welcomed, they played among other things Mars from Holst's The Planets suite, just what the doctor ordered for those already deafened by the éoliennes stushie. After the concert all 52 of them, plus the audience of about the same number, were invited to a reception in the upstairs room in the mairie, and as there was nobody much on duty from the conseil municipal Josephine and I found ourselves manning the bar.
Before disappearing the municipal councillors charged with feeding and watering guests had put out nibbles and a bottle or two of cola, some carafes of tap water (excellent here, by the way) and three 5-litre wine boxes, one each of white, red and rosé. Needless to say this didn't last very long, the queues at the bar grew ever longer, so we went in search of more liquid refreshment in the tiny kitchen, opening cupboards and looking in boxes stacked on the floor.
Well! If ever local taxpayers wondered just how their money was being spent, here was part of the answer. Litre bottles of pastis, whisky and marc, a sort of brandy. Cases of wine, white, red and rosé. Boxes of muscat. A bottle or two of champagne. Several liqueurs. And as for the stack of empty bottles - well, we'd unwittingly come across the municipal booze stash, enough and more to ensure that the wheels of council business were exceedingly well oiled for the foreseeable future and that guests rolled home carolling joyfully about the incredible hospitality on tap in the village mairie. You wouldn't get this in Orpington or Belper.
But what right had we, a couple of Brits with absolutely no delegated authority, to serve it? The queues at the bar were growing restive. Should we call time? Serve water only? Disappear out of the side door and leg it for home?
There are times when it's better to ask forgiveness than to seek permission, and that this was one of them. We opened several bottles of the Languedoc's finest, poured without stint and everyone, Swiss musicians and French audience, went home happy.
Was there any comeback? Were we presented with the bill for booze irregularly dispensed? Not a bit of it. We were commended for our initiative.
It's a great place to live, France, sometimes. But watch out for les anarchistes.