IT VERY nearly didn't happen. It was touch and go, right up to the last moment. No one had actually said there would be someone present in the Mairie to marry us. Most unusually, no official had actually been identified. An ominous silence, as though local officialdom was boycotting the affair. And we couldn't get any answer out of them.
This was very worrying. What if all the wedding guests, assembled from all over France, the UK and the USA, had turned up for nothing? What if they all had a wonderful meal and got themselves the right side of dozens of bottles of champagne, only to find that at the end of the day we hadn't got married at all?
The ceremony was due to start at 11.15. At 11.00 Josephine - at her beautiful best in a sensational creation by Zapa and clutching a wonderful bridal bouquet by Monique Beletbeau of St Pons - and I stood in our hall, worrying frantically. Maybe the signs weren't all negative, though. Josephine's bridesmaid, her twin Rosemary, had left ten minutes before, and hadn't come back, which she surely would have done if anything had been amiss. I felt like Mr Noah when the third dove he sent out from his ark didn't return. We locked up, took a deep breath, got in the car and drove the two minute drive down to the Mairie to start the next chapter in our lives, in good time for Josephine to exercise her bride's right to be a minute or two late.
No one was about, the square was deserted. Eerie. We didn't expect cheering crowds, but maybe a few guests, the odd knot of curious villagers . . . the traffic cones reserving a space in front of the Mairie were in place . . . and there, suddenly, at the top of the Mairie steps was Andrew, my son and best man, the broadest of grins on his face. So far so good.
We climbed the stairs to the salle de mariage, the marriage room. Music broke out as we entered, and the first of many waves of deep emotion washed over us: the room was packed, standing room only, and we could feel the warmth of goodwill like the summer sun on our backs. So this was where everyone was. And everyone means everyone: waiting for us behind the red baize-covered table, resplendent in his tricolour sash, beneath the official portrait of President Sarkozy, was not just any old municipal councillor - in France elected members have the right to marry couples - but the Vice-President of the Conseil Général de l'Hérault, the Maire himself.
And not just the Maire: as though flanked by heraldic supporters he had on his right Christiane Cré, clerk and registrar and the most junior member of the newly-elected municipal council; and on his left none other than an old friend of this column, Indispensable William, a striking figure swathed in the blue and yellow-starred sash of the local European commissioner.
After a ten-minute ceremony conducted with wit and aplomb by the Maire in French, and echoed in English by Indispensable William, we were married. Phew. We'd made it, Mrs Campbell-Howes and I.
* * *TOUCH AND go? It certainly had been. Towards the end of 2007 and well into the new year all France had been alive with talk of the mid-March local elections. Throughout this run-up period I had whispered into one or two appropriate ears that it might be a good idea if the village expats were represented on the new council. It wasn't such a desperately revolutionary idea: Brits had served with distinction on the outgoing councils of several neighbouring villages. Indeed, at least three were among our wedding guests. After all, expats - Brits, Dutch, Belgians, Germans and Scandinavians, mostly - make up about 12% of the population, we pay local taxes, we sustain the local economy and my goodness it needs it, expat money is buckshee for France because most of it comes from our various countries of origin, and I could have gone on listing the benefits that a lively, outgoing expat community brings, especially if it tries to integrate itself into local society.
But there were no takers. A ready-made council of 15 members was listed on the voting slip, all sound, worthy and mostly local people. And strictly French. No one stood against them. It's a one-party village, although it doesn't wear any political party favours. Now one of the peculiarities of French local elections is that there's always room at the foot of your voting slip for you to add, by hand, the name of anyone else you think ought to be on the council. For every person you add you must strike out one of the official candidates, so that the total doesn't exceed 15.
What happened we shall never know. Apparently a significant number of voting papers, so significant that the full results were never published, had official candidates' names crossed out and foreigners' names substituted. The end result wasn't affected, of course, and the new council was well and truly and honestly voted in, but it did look as though there'd been some kind of plot . . . and who was obviously behind it? Who was trying to upset the village applecart? Who'd been going about advocating including foreigners in the official list?
If plot there was, it was nothing whatever to do with me or Josephine, of course, but with a fortnight to go before the wedding things were tense, to say the least. So you can understand that there was more than one reason why we were so glad to see the mayoral tricolour sash waiting for us in the salle de mariage.
* * *NEXT ON the agenda in an already crowded year is our choir's concert mini-tour. Campbell's Diary regulars will perhaps be familiar with Les Jeudistes, the small multi-national choir that I conduct and in which Josephine sings alto. We're called Les Jeudistes because we rehearse on jeudi, i.e. Thursdays. Huge excitement in the ranks - although we're only nine - at the prospect of what they're calling our World Tour (in fact a long weekend in Kent and Sussex), especially as it will be the first visit to the UK for some of our members, and for one or two the first time they've flown.
Anyway, if you're anywhere near Sevenoaks or Crowborough on May 10th and 11th, come and listen. We'd be delighted to see you. Full details are:
Saturday, May 10th, at 7.00pm:
Church of St John the Baptist, Quakers Hall Lane, Sevenoaks.
Sunday, May 11th, at 7.00pm:
Church of St Michael and All Angels, Jarvis Brook, Crowborough.
- but I'm afraid I can't offer prizes for correctly identifying which of the lovely Jeudiste ladies the conductor is now married to.