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.