Details on: Taking on the role of Mayor in a rural French village.
Only 16% of mayors in France are women, an increase of 4% since the 2014 municipal elections. Two months before the 2014 elections I decided to head a list of 15 members for the municipal council of my village in the Vosges, a rural county in Eastern France. We won the election and it was the first time our village (pop. 519) elected a village council half female/half male, and the newly elected council in turn elected a woman as mayor.
If female mayors are rare in French rural communities, foreign anglophone female mayors are even rarer. As I am a change management professor in a business school and a researcher in gender diversity and sustainable change, my experience as a mayor has become an opportunity to bridge practice and theory. From team management to conflict management, from public budget management to forest, water and road management, my first political mandate has been learning-in-action. I see my village as a living laboratory for change management during a time where reforms are multiple and budgets extremely constrained. The need to make decisions which are socially, economically, and environmentally responsible has never been greater.
Women give voice to different concerns in the political sphere and behave in different ways. As women make up half the world’s population, increasing their participation in decision-making positions is vital at all levels of politics for social, economic and environmental change.
Anglo-Canadian by birth and French by marriage, I have lived in a rural French village for the past 30 years. Shortly after moving to the village, my newborn in a baby carriage, I led a campaign to become mayor. For me it was a question of principles. The team in place counted only one woman out of a team of eleven. Although I had only lived in the village for a few months, I took it upon myself to find ten other residents half women, half men. In a French village, finding people who oppose those in power is not hard. Our list (of oppostion) was not voted in and I quickly became absorbed in raising a family and pursuing my career. However, I obviously made an impression because thirty years later I was asked to head a new list for the upcoming elections. I accepted the challenge once again and with only two months before the elections and still no experience in municipal politics, I created a fifteen member team (the village had grown over time), half female, half male.
Looking back, some things came naturally: recruiting for the team, creating vision, defining a campaign strategy, communicating our program. The greatest challenges came once in office and consisted of addressing conflicts long ignored by the former mayor, and which had a severe impact on the well-being of residents of certain neighborhoods and security in general. These included neighbors of a late night bar established in a former house whose owner made his own laws and whose clients posed problems of respect for others and road safety. Neighbors of a metallic and wooden sports structure had filed suit against the previous mayor for the resulting noise and lack of supervision. The multi-sports field like the bar had been built without any impact study. Common to both cases, was a decision-making process excluding discussions with those immediately influenced by the outcome, and lack of consideration for supervision and control once the action had been implemented.
As newcomers to the political scene, we women need to openly engage in leaving our comfort zone, and strongly voice and defend our concerns and follow through with frame-breaking actions. The way we make decisions today in local politics must break from past traditions. We must find innovative ways to involve citizens of all ages in the decision-making process including girls and women and the silent majority. As women in positions of authority are a minority in a public space historically reserved for men, we must be aware that women political leaders incarnate change – for men and other women – and build the resilience necessary to accompany change.
My message for the world - A higher involvement of women in public office will contribute positively to more socially, economically and environmentally responsible decisions. . The time is right for women to get into local politics where they can make a difference, especially in countries such as France, where 50% of the mayors currently in office declare that they will not run for the next mandate.