“Not everything is run from Paris”- Living in Divonne Part 2

In October 2010, Living in Nyon reader Celia Marsh  wrote about what it is like to live in Divonne in France, (just a few miles from Nyon).  Here is another article, also about living in on Divonne, but this time it comes from long time resident John Burley. John is a “Conseiller Municipal” in the town and here he writes about the activities of the local council, from decisions on whether to build a new primary school, to the state of Divonne’s finances, to what to do with the area around the old railway station and how not everything in France is run from Paris….

Lettre d’un élu de Divonne-les Bains.

The other day, I saw Celia Marsh’s article about living in Divonne-les-Bains on this web site.  As a long-time resident of the station thermale and now Conseiller Municipal, it was a pleasure to read her words.  She got it completely right.  Divonne is a great place to live.  As long as Divonne preserves its wonderfully green environment, the result is there for all to see (and not least the 1000 frontaliers who quite rightly prefer to have the best of both worlds, a Swiss income and a French residence).

So it was not difficult to accept the invitation to join Etienne Blanc’s team for the municipal elections of 2008.  Fortunately, there are no national political considerations at play in communal deliberations.  The current Conseil Municipal in Divonne is pretty representative of the commune – we have “les vrai divonnais“, from families who have been here for several generations; some more recent arrivals in the area from elsewhere in France or from former French colonies; and les internationaux.

 75 Nationalities living in the Commune

There are over 75 nationalities living in the commune: eligibility for election to the Conseil Municipal is open to citizens of states members of the European Union, so in addition to the franco-francais, there are several Conseillers from other European countries.  I have British and French nationality.  Having decided to continue to live in Divonne after my retirement, I felt the slogan “no taxation without representation” was for me since I had to be able to vote if I was going to pay French taxes.  I am afraid the gendarme who interviewed me when I applied for French nationality did not appreciate the joke.

The lake, the primary school, the tennis courts.

Public service is in my genes.  Having spent almost all my professional life in the United Nations where we “think globally” most of the time, I was delighted to be offered the chance to “act locally”.  Communal discussions and decisions do directly affect the lives of residents.  In the last few months we have been discussing in the Conseil Municipal: whether or not to build a new primary school to accommodate the requirements of the growing number of young families moving to Divonne (yes); how to develop the area around the beautiful lake so popular to so many people from Vaud, Geneva and the Pays de Gex (some answers: a new horse riding club and a new 4 star hotel); whether to install new tennis courts at the Divonne tennis club (yes); what to offer as cultural events at the much frequented Esplanade du Lac (a highly diversified and international programme); how to support a very active community of over 100 local associations (a new Maison des Associations); what new shops and restaurants could best complement the incredibly popular Sunday market; and so on.

From Street Dance to Brazilian music – A variety of events on offer for Divonne residents.

Money is not the headache

The biggest headache?  Surprisingly, this is not money.  As a member of the Commission des Finances, I can vouch that Divonne’s finances are in good shape.  We have diversified our sources of revenue.  We are slowly but surely weaning ourselves away from financial dependency on the casino (the share of the casino is down from over 80% to less than 25%).  The tax base is solid, and tax-payers are better off in Divonne than elsewhere in the Pays de Gex.  The compensation franco-genevoise – French communes receive back a share of the income tax paid in Geneva by their resident frontaliers – grows each year.  The typical image of France is that everything is run from Paris.  In fact, local authorities in France have considerably more power over local finances than their British equivalents.

What to do with the old railway station area?

No, the biggest challenge facing Divonne is: what to do with the Quartier de la Gare?  This eyesore in the centre of Divonne has been left untouched for far too long.  There is broad agreement on many things – underground parking, a mixture of low-lying apartment buildings, shops, public services and open green spaces.  But the devil is in the detail: how much of each, how to get the right balance, how to safeguard the environment and what to do with the old railway station.  If all goes well, the plans should be finalized this year, whereupon the commune will launch an international competition for the best design.

 Being directly involved in communal affairs is fun and worthwhile.  The Mayor, Etienne Blanc, likes to tease the English from time to time: I hope he doesn’t mind the occasional répartie.   Sometimes the meetings become difficult and I get lost, primarily because the French love to talk at 500 words a minute, all at the same time and frequently on tangential issues.  But I am very impressed with the amount of time and effort people are prepared to put, bénévolement, into communal affairs

 My mother visited Divonne as a very young girl when on holiday in the Jura with her parents some 90 years ago.  According to her diary, she liked it.  Whilst there, she obviously picked up a hereditary disease called “divonnitis”.    I hope her son passes the same bug to his children.

John Burley, Conseiller Muncipal, Divonne-les-Bains

John Burley, British by birth and French by marriage, has lived in Divonne for 23 years. He was educated at a Quaker school in England and at Cambridge University.  Trained as an economist and committed to public service, John spent several years working in Uganda before joining UNDP in New York in the early 1970’s.  When he retired from the United Nations in 2004, he was a Director in UNCTAD.  He was invited to join Etienne Blanc’s list “Divonne Ensemble” for the municipal elections in March 2008.  An independent member, John is active in several areas of communal life, including finance, economy, tourism and the development of the area around the Lake. He has two daughters and two granddaughters.

Living in Divonne – The town, the spa, the lake and those French taxes!

Photo above C. Nelson-Pollard: Rowing on Lac Divonne

Divonne les Bains in France (just a few miles from Nyon) is famous for its Sunday morning market. Locals and visitors alike, come from far and wide for the wide selection of fresh food, spices, household goods, bread, French cheeses and a little bit of French ambiance (accordion player included!) However, the town of Divonne (population 8,000) is also home to many expatriates. Living in Nyon is delighted that Celia Marsh, a British expatriate living in Divonnne for many years, has written about what it is like to live in the town.

Divonne Lake

Updated 4th November 2014

The Spa and a bit of history of the town.

“Like Nyon, Divonne was appreciated by the Romans for its water, an underground aqueduct used to link Divonne to Nyon to supply it with ‘l’eau divine’ hence the name (apparently). The bust of Dr Paul Vidart is mounted on a pedestal in the park in the centre of town as he recognised the quality of the water from the source. This water is rich in calcium and magnesium and thus led to the birth of the spa which originally made the town wealthy. Situated by the side of the large art deco, four star hotel, called the Domaine de Divonne the ‘Thermes de Divonne’  building houses a gym, fitness classes, pool, beauty treatment rooms – in short, all sorts of ways to pamper and preen yourself.

Leisure facilities

For such a small town Divonne has an incredible offering of leisure and tourist facilities which make it such a great place to live. There is a 50 metre heated outdoor pool with accompanying paddling pool, a baby pool, a pool with a long slide and a diving pool, all surrounded by large lawns and a café serving a range of snacks.

Photo: Divonne swimming pool

Only a few metres away lies a sandy beach which was constructed on the edge of lake Divonne. This lake was made by filling the hole left by the gravel which was taken out to help construct the autoroute – the mayor wisely asked that in return for this excavation, that an exit off the motorway be created for Divonne. The beach has a wide but shallow swimming area, which is roped off from the rest of the lake; there is a strip of lawn to laze on, a café and shower facilities.

Photo: Beach by Divonne lake

Just along from the lake there is a small port area from which you can hire small sail boats and canoes and a place to launch for windsurfers, there is also a sailing school.  Around the lake there are lanes marked off for cyclists and walkers. These are very popular indeed, recent additions to the grassy banks  are monkey bars & parallel bars to do various exercises on. Newly installed lighting means the whole of the walking area (which is about 3 km in length) is lit at night. You can often see fishermen around the lake too, (note: a permit is required which can be obtained from the Office de Tourisme).

Photo: Divonne Tourist Office

On the north side of the lake there is ‘Forestland’, a leisure park for children of all ages (I’m sure some adults will enjoy it too!) –activities include going from tree to tree on wires and bridges, ping pong, trampolining as well as organised activities for groups and parties such as treasure hunts and laser games etc.

Next door to Forestland there is a crazy golf, mini go kart track, and a place to hire cycle cars which can be pedalled round the lake. Divonne also has a tennis club offering 8 tennis courts, 4 indoor and 4 outdoor and an active club. Two of the courts were added in 2013 and are on ‘terre battu’ – (clay courts)

Cultural activities

The Esplanade has an active programme of cultural events includes plays and classical concerts (amongst other shows) throughout the year. There is a music school in town too which promotes a jazz band and gives concerts from time to time.  There is a also a printed programme of events (published monthly) around the town including those at the esplanade called ‘ Je vie à Divonne’ (I live in Divonne) which can be found in most of the shops, banks and Office de tourism.

Another way to spend your money in Divonne is to gamble it away: Divonne has a successful Casino attached to the Domaine de Divonne Hotel, which has slot machines, black jack, poker, roulettes… if you are over 18 and come dressed smartly with your passport you too can end up with a small fortune (as long as you started with a very big one).

Eating out/ Restaurants in Divonne.

There are a dozen or so restaurants catering for all budgets;  There is an Indian restaurant called The Rajhastan which can be found in the courtyard opposite Credit Agricole on the main street. For more expensive, elegant dining there is La Terrasse (part of the Domaine) – classic sophistication, and also Le Rectiligne – modern chic by the lake, (opposite the port). There is now a Thai restaurant called Kamiko (updated November 2014)

For very simple fare in a fantastic setting (but only open in the summer months), you must try the restaurant La ferme de Mont Mussy, up on the hill leading out of Divonne towards Gex. It has no electricity, but offers simple but delicious salads and delicious tarte aux myrtilles ( necessary to book at week- ends). The view of the lake and Alps from the restaurant is panoramic and can be enjoyed from the outdoor terrace which has plenty of space for children to play and there is even a swing provided.

Education

There are primary 3 schools in Divonne – one newly opened in 2013, the other two refurbished and extended in the last three years. There is also a ‘college’ for years 7 to 10 inclusive. My daughter went to the primary school in Arbere, and was also able to attend lessons in the English National Programme at Ferney Lycée, one afternoon a week , to continue her education in Maths, History/geography, English Language and English Literature. The programme has an excellent reputation and is inspected to UK standards. The schools in Divonne are used to welcoming children of all nationalities, there are many expatriates that live in Divonne. My daughter attended the English programme with three others in her class. There are also National Programmes in German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Swedish.

Note: if you have any questions on Schooling/ Education  anywhere in Switzerland, Living in Nyon can highly recommend the book called “Education Guide Switzerland”. This is a comprehensive catalogue of all English language schools and academic programmes in Switzerland.

Cafés and Cooking Classes

For a nice cup of coffee or tea  in Divonne the Comptoir du Chocolat is a must, it has a few tables both inside and out, when the weather permits, try their hot chocolate on a cold winter’s day, it’s pure velvety chocolate heaven! The chocolates there are divine too. For those of you wishing to improve on your own culinary skills, there is a successful cookery school the “Coulisses Gourmandes” this offers daytime and evening courses for small groups –for adults or children, with the bonus that you get to eat the products of your labour after your cooking. The school is run by Dominique Roué who has been chef at several Michelin starred restaurants.

Golfing in Divonne

Divonne also boasts a superb golf course, (I have been told it is one of the oldest in Europe), it has 60 hectares of greens, a driving range and is a par 72, although I am not a golfer I can recommend the 19 th hole which is the Pavillon du Golf, this has a lovely shady terrace with views to the Alps, to sit out on in summer and it does a very nice lunch!

The Chateau

Just opposite the Pavillon is the Chateau de Divonne a magnificent 19th century classical building which is a luxury hotel. It’s worth checking out their web site as they offer some interesting entertainment including wine tasting evenings, jazz on the terrace overlooking Mont Blanc and musical evenings offered with cocktails and/or gourmet meals.

If you want to explore the town there are bikes for hire from the tourist office, and they also offer a wide range of organised walks and outings in Divonne and elsewhere – day trips to the French and Swiss Alps and other beauty spots. You can find out about these in the publication ‘Divonne Animation’ our very own version of what’s on, available from shops and the tourist office!

The cost of living in Divonne, and those French taxes!

Update November 4th 2014

Cost of Living:

Celia Marsh says – Since I first wrote this section below I have since received a lot of questions on this subject!  Divonne is a very attractive alternative to living just over the border in Switzerland, and apart from nearby Nyon, it is the only town to offer the wide range of facilities I have described. Since the change of government to President Hollande it appears that prices are even more attractive than they were to the Swiss and many have been buying  property on this side of the border.  Fortunately, key infrastructure such as new schools and a crèche is keeping pace.

Here is the current situation as I know it

General living costs

Petrol and food, and eating out are about 30 % cheaper in France-and the further away from Divonne the cheaper it gets- Gex, St Genis as examples of neighbouring towns, offer much cheaper housing and eating out. A cinema ticket in Ferney (for example) costs 9 euros (11 CHF), whilst in Geneva is around 18 CHF

Taxes -as a ‘frontalier’ ie someone who works in Switzerland but lives in France

If you work in Geneva, all taxes are paid as if you were living in CH, (you pay no French tax), there is some arrangement between France and Switzerland to allow this. If you work in Vaud canton, you pay Swiss Social taxes of about 7 %, and French income taxes (impot sur le revenue) see current tax bands for 2014 and how these are applied here:.

As a family we have experienced three scenarios- we have lived and worked in Geneva canton, lived in Divonne and worked in Geneva and lived in Divonne and worked in Vaud. In all three scenarios our experience is that we are paying similar tax levels.

Healthcare charges:

If you work in Switzerland you can opt to be in the Swiss Healthcare system called LaMal when you start work. You choose an approved insurance scheme and pay your subscription fees. As a frontalier the other option you have is to choose to be insured by the French state healthcare, for those lucky enough to be on a high salary you will pay according to a % of your salary. The more you earn the worse the second option is. BEWARE, once you have turned down the Swiss option, they don’t let you reapply, so this is to be considered carefully.

Living this side of the border is definitely cheaper than in Switzerland. Although house prices in Divonne are higher than in the neighbouring villages, they are considerably less than over the border-probably by about 30-40 %. For example a nice 180 m2 house for rent in central Divonne is around 3000-3500 Euros (Oct 2010).

There are always discussions and questions about high French taxes, but if you work in Geneva you don’t pay French tax, if you work in Vaud you only pay French income tax, all social charges (the expensive part of French taxation) are paid in Switzerland. In our family we had a tax advisor calculate the sums for us and we were much better off in France- as living here means we don’t have to pay Swiss health insurance. (for example I have an international health insurance policy which covers me (100% cover) for the whole of Europe, this costs about a fifth of what a friend pays in Switzerland).

There are many reasons why I like living in Divonne, it’s a super place to be and as a bonus we are only 15 minutes from the airport and not much more to get into Geneva. The only thing we miss is a direct train link, but handily there is a bus which links to the train from Coppet or from Nyon-  after all you can’t have it all!”

Photo above – Bust of Dr Paul Vidart  – he recognised the quality of Divonne’s water

All Photos C. Marsh

Celia Marsh is a consultant on environmental issues and an expert on all things wine related (she has run wine tasting courses in France and Switzerland). If you have any questions about living in Divonne she is happy to answer them and can be contacted at celiamarsh at gmail.com