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Page last updated at 06:08 GMT, Tuesday, 30 December 2008
A tale of two towns

By Ollie Stone-Lee
Today programme

As he strolls through the town square, Jean Claude Boulard, the mayor of Le Mans, is greeted by enthusiastic bonjours, a few kisses, even a bear hug from a woman thankful for the town's new tramway.

Jean Claude Boulard © Jérôme Lourdais, Ouest-France
The mayor enjoys a popularity unusual in the UK
The mayor is celebrating the first anniversary of the tramway, one of his pet projects, and the mass of microphones gathered around him display a celebrity seldom found in English local government.

Since the French Revolution, the office of mayor has enjoyed huge political legitimacy - remember Jean Valjean's stint as mayor in Les Miserables - and continues to do so. It's still not uncommon for Cabinet ministers also to be mayor of their city.

French mayors like Mr Boulard are not directly elected but they might as well be. Local election campaigns revolve around the person each party is putting up to be mayor.

Mr Boulard is in no doubt about the importance of that voter endorsement.

It's quite funny for us. We like very much this figure in England, with their chain
Jean Claude Boulard
"It is very important to have legitimacy to rule a town, to have power of taxes of course," he says.

"More than 50% of the budget comes from local income and we've fixed the level of the local income. That's a very important power. It needs election to practice this power."

Chain of office

The Le Mans mayor finds England's mayors, well, a bit of a joke. "Decorative" mayors, he calls them.

"It's quite funny for us. We like very much this figure in England, with their chain," he chuckles.

But this attention on one man has its downsides, warns Jerome Lourdais, at the Le Mans office of Ouest France, the country's biggest selling newspaper: "The mayor is able to bring people together, is representing the city outside, and is really the boss but on the other hand is kind of monopolising the power, if he's not strong enough, or if he's hesitating or if he's not respecting his promises, that could be a problem because he's the only one who's deciding."

Slough roundabout
Come, friendly bombs?
So could directly elected mayors help give English towns much-needed cohesion and vim?

Slough is a similar sized town to Le Mans but has a popular perception problem. If it wasn't enough for John Betjeman to plead: "Come, friendly bombs and fall on Slough", Ricky Gervais then had to write a comedy set in the town.

Isn't it just the kind of place which could benefit from a directly elected mayor as its champion?

Restoring civic pride in the town was one of the election promises made by Slough Council's leader, Rob Anderson and his Labour group when won control this year.

Mr Anderson, the closest equivalent to a French mayor, says he does not envy the personal power of Mr Boulard but he is jealous of the status and most of all the money-raising powers given to local government in France. His council is forced to rely on central funds for 75% of the council's income.

He believes it's that attitude to local government which must change, rather than putting a directly elected mayor in each council.

People seem to do their own things now, nobody helps each other anymore like they used to, they don't care about where they live
Slough resident

"Just changing the name of the person at the top, without giving them further powers, without giving them the ability to raise taxes locally or to actually decide on local spending priorities, I don't think would work as people would see it as different name, same structure underneath it."

Mr Anderson juggles his council responsibilities with his day job at Fujitsu but he says most people don't want full time politicians - they think it's more democratic to think that any one of them could become a councillor without having to surrender their career.

Ultimately, Slough's voters could have a directly elected mayor if they wanted. It just takes enough of them to petition for a referendum to be held on the subject.

At an over-50s line dancing class at one of the town's leisure centres, Catherine Hawks, is unsure whether having an elected mayor would be a panacea for the town's problems.

"There's no community any more. People seem to do their own things now, nobody helps each other anymore like they used to, they don't care about where they live," she says.

Ms Hawks has lived in Slough for 42 years, but has never known any of Slough's councillors - she votes just according to party lines in local elections.

That lack of enthusiasm for change is mirrored across England, which now has 13 directly elected mayors. Despite the high profile given to Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson in London, few councils have followed.

A French revolution here looks far off.

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