Inside knowledge and intimate understanding.

Living France magazine

The Best Political Show in France – an excerpt from Languedoc-Roussillon

He’s an enormous man, both in height and girth, a man full of life. You wouldn’t miss him in a crowd, with his owlish glasses and electrified shock of hair, and crowds are exactly where Georges Frêche likes to be. The Socialist mayor of Montpellier from 1977 to 2004, Frêche presided over its remarkable transformation into one of the most vibrant and fastest-growing cities in France, while still finding time to teach a full schedule of courses on the history of law at the University. No mayor in France ever presided over such a gargantuan building program: shopping malls, convention halls and cultural institutions, governmental palaces and a middle-income housing project called ‘Antigone’ that looks like Versailles on steroids.

To accompany it, Frêche created an equally gargantuan and noisy public relations machine that embarasses many of the French. In truth, it would have embarassed P.T. Barnum. New slogans were churned out on an annual basis, most memorably, perhaps, Montpellier le surdoué (the ‘specially-gifted’). Frêche is big on mascots too. All his projects seem to have one; the new tramway’s is a sort of pink panther. Meanwhile the government painted giant blue M’s all over town to remind citizens of their imperial destiny.

Amidst all the hoopla, it’s understandable that a fellow like Frêche might arouse some controversy. And that’s the best part; Montpellier’s flamboyant, controversial mayor has puffed himself up to such a degree that nothing he does is a bigger issue than the man himself. Frêche has never been known for modesty. He often compares himself to the Medicis of Florence or (with an eye to the local Muslim vote) the Caliphs of Córdoba. Opponents call him ‘Ramses II’, among other things; one of them likens him to a ‘tyrannosaurus’ who has gobbled up Montpellier, and now turns his appetites on the entire region. Frêche is a former Maoist, and anyone who’s ever crossed him will tell you he has carried over some old totalitarian attitudes into his new persona. Anyone who disagrees with him, whether intellectuals or associations of bicyclists, gets covered in vituperation and then methodically squashed. Unlike most high-profile French mayors, Frêche has never had a seat in the cabinet. He’s too outspoken for that, and perhaps too contemptuous of what he calls the ‘caviar left’. François Mitterand himself put the kibosh on his national aspirations. He once publicly called the mayor a traitor to his party—it isn’t clear whether the old scoundrel couldn’t tolerate an uncorrupted politician, or just couldn’t stand Georges Frêche.

While the fur flies, all is not necessarily rosy in the Specially-Gifted City. Crime and taxes are high. The economy has attracted some big firms, such as IBM, though unemployment remains significantly higher than the national average. Montpellier has made a big gamble on its incubator for new technology businesses. Scores of small start-up firms have already appeared from its research, but it’s still too early to tell whether many will really grow. In the long run, though, the worst of the city’s problems may be Ramses’ monumental works. France, to put it charitably, is not a country where urban design flourishes; other ambitious cities such as Toulouse and Grenoble have already built futuristic grand developments they now heartily regret. We may not be around to collect, but we’ll wager a big sum that the city’s centerpiece Antigone project will decline to a slum and have to be demolished within thirty years (Some of the works of the architect who built it are already falling down by themselves). In a time when planners around the world have finally come to realize that mixing land uses is the right way to create lively, successful neighborhoods, Montpellier still files everything into separate pigeonholes: one zone for residences, another for government offices, another for green space, another for shopping and entertainment. If they have a vision at all, it would be something like Milton Keynes.

There’s a strange American streak in the works of the former Maoist. The last of Frêche’s projects is France’s answer to Minnesota’s Mall of America: ‘Odysseum’,a giant suburbanshopping mall and retail power center with cinemas, a skating rink, planetarium, bowling alley and spa, surrounded by a sea of parking lots. Many people in Montpellier worry it will suck all the life out the rest of the city, and they’ve been fighting it for a decade.

Georges Frêche, in the twilight of his career, has moved on to bigger things. In 2004 he led the Socialists in capturing the Languedoc-Roussillon regional council, for the first time in eighteen years. He immediately proposed raising taxes by 52%, and Nicolas Sarkozy acerbically awarded him the National Grand Prize for Taxation. If anything, his presence in the grandiose new Hôtel de Region, next to Montpellier’s Antigone, guarantees that the regional political circus will be more fun than ever. Frêche isn’t the only bad cat in the ring. His conservative nemesis, who ran the region all those years with the help of the Front National, is the UMP’s Jacques Blanc, a neuropsychologist who enjoys psychoanalyzing Frêche before the cameras. He finds him the most difficult pathological case history he has ever encountered. Blanc claims he only played footsie with the FN for so long because he ‘couldn’t let such a brute have so much power’.

Another political enemy is Jean-Paul Fournier, the mayor of Montpellier’s arch-rival Nîmes. Fournier recently took over the city from Jean Bousquet, CEO of Cacharel, who ran the city deep into debt trying to keep up with Fréche. In 1950, Nîmes was bigger than Montpellier, now it has slipped far behind. Fournier credits the problem to not being the regional capital, the lack of an important university, and the city’s old habit of electing Communist mayors. Nîmes realizes now that it doesn’t need to build megaprojects. Montpellier can have the temporary fizz, and the debt; Nîmes has charm and a sense of place. In truth, the cities’ destinies are too close together to fight; underneath the gaudy headlines, they have to work closely together on such issues as economic strategy, a common airport and a common TGV terminal. About Frêche, Fournier only says ‘lui c’est lui, et moi c’est moi.’ But he complains that the Socialist has never even allowed a meeting with him. They’ve met only once, at a handball match.

Frêche may have met his match in the Catalans—specifically in the nationalist party in Roussillon, the Bloc Catalá. This new group has taken for its symbol a rather sinister-looking masked donkey. Why a donkey? What animal better symbolizes the Catalan? And why masked? The Bloc Catalá explains that he is ‘hiding from Georges Frêche, with all his carrots and sticks’. They add that the mask is ‘reminiscent of Zorro, and of a certain cucumber...’ (Remember we are in the land of Salvador Dali)

What riles the Catalans most is Frêche’s new plan to change the name of the region to Septimanie, thus erasing Roussillon’s identity. They put up posters screaming ‘No to Septicemia!’, and refer to Frêche and his allies as ‘Septimaniacs’. To make it worse, Frêche recently made the unforgiveable gaffe of suggesting that the Catalan language was only a patois. The Bloc Catalá’s activists cornered him soon after, at the opening of a new school in Perpignan, and forced him to admit Catalan was really a language after all. ‘Now can you say a few words in Catalan for us?’, they asked politely. Frêche replied ‘Bon dia!’, and went home to Montpellier.

© Dana Facaros & Michael Pauls