The endangered and ageing socialist 'principality' of the Ariège

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The Ariège département in southern France has a long history as a bastion of the Socialist Party. Over several decades, it has been the fiefdom of a clan of local politicians who are accused by opponents of ruling with a surprisingly monarchic set of practices: cronyism, the hoarding by a few of multiple posts of public office, political functions handed down to groomed successors, and intimidation of opponents.  In this, his third and final report from one of the poorest and least inhabited départements in France, Mathieu Magnaudeix investigates the inside workings of what might be likened to a socialist ‘principality’.

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Two citadels stand proud above the centre of the southern French town of Foix, the administrative capital of the Ariège département (equivalent to a county), close to the border with Spain. One of them is a medieval fortress, a major local tourist attraction, and the other, at the top of a hill, is the building that houses the General Council, from where Augustin Bonrepaux reigns over the region.

Bonrepaux, 76, has spent 47 years in politics. The socialist president of the Ariège General Council sits in the background of French politics at a national level, but across this département with a population of 160,000 – one of the poorest and least inhabited in France – Bonrepaux is the boss, a feared and unavoidable political player who, with the help of his allies, calls all the shots.   

Towards the end of last year, Bonrepaux disappeared from public view for some three weeks. The local press reported that he had “injured his leg”, while some members of the local Socialist Party branch whispered in secret that he had suffered a much more serious accident. For several weeks, the true health of the regional council president was kept as if a state secret.  Then, on December 19th, he turned up, hobbling with a stick, for a council meeting with the powerful local water and sewage supplies syndicate.


Foix. Siège du conseil général de l'Ariège. © M.M. Foix. Siège du conseil général de l'Ariège. © M.M.

“I hunt the Pyrenean chamois,” Bonrepaux explained to Mediapart that same day. “This little beast hides among difficult rocks. My gun got stuck in the rock, I had my femur broken in three places, I tumbled down 40 metres. By a miracle I’m not dead." Asked whether he had in fact suffered a stroke, as claimed by some, he enigmatically replied: “I didn’t lose my memory.”

Augustin Bonrepaux © DR Augustin Bonrepaux © DR

Lying at the foothills of the Pyrenees, the Ariège département has a history as one of the strongest socialist-supporting regions in France; in some villages, in the first of the two-round legislative and presidential elections, Socialist Party candidates have garnered more than 60% of the vote.

The local Socialist Party federation has 1,200 members, which is a comparatively high number for such a small département whose three parliamentary representatives (two National Assembly MPs and one Senator) are all socialists. The party also holds 19 of the 22 seats on the regional council, as well as controlling the towns of Foix and Lavelanet, and numerous small local councils.

An exception is the town of Pamiers, which has the largest population of any in the département, whose 88 year-old centre-right mayor André Trigano will stand for re-election in this year’s municipal elections.

The 332 communes (large and small municipal administrations) of the Ariège -which, with a small stretch of the imagination, might be likened to being a socialist principality - are highly dependent upon help from the global budget of the département. One third of a yearly total of some 47 million euros available for investment is ploughed into local communal projects, on top of aid provided to local associations.    

While the distribution of aid has certainly helped address social needs,  it has also created a vast network of political henchmen – or, at best, a circle of elected representatives who are careful not to upset the regional power. “We’re still in a system of the [pre-WWII French] Third Republic , radical-socialist, very closed-in, with a Socialist Party hegemony over rural territories where the public powers are very present,” comments  Gérald Sgobbo, mayor of Villeneuve-d'Olmes, a town close to Lavelanet where socialist Senator Jean-Pierre Bel, who is also president of the French Senate, holds his power base.

Michel Teychenné, a former local Socialist Party official and once an advisor to former French socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin denounces what he calls a “frozen” political system in the Ariège “founded upon a cronyism”, which he says draws its strength from the chain of small communes it dominates.  

Teychenné, who leads the left-wing opposition alliance in Pamiers, last year authored a report on homophobia in schools, commissioned by the current socialist education minister Vincent Peillon, and was chief advisor on policy-making for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) for François Hollande during the 2012 presidential election campaign.

In 2010, Teychenné accused the Ariège Socialist Party federation of removing him for reasons of homophobia from their list of candidates for regional council elections. Following press coverage of his claim, he was found guilty of ‘complicity in defaming’ after a legal suit was filed against him by Augustin Bonrepaux. The two men have been outspoken political foes for several years, during which Teychenné has regularly publicly attacked the local socialist apparatus which he likens to “a small business that manages the département defending the interests of its shareholders and heirs”.

While questionable political practices exist in regions elsewhere, the Ariège demonstrates a surprising concentration of them: an extreme centralisation of power, the simultaneous holding of multiple posts of public office, political functions awarded on a ‘hereditary’ basis, and very little renewal of political personnel.     

Dynasties

Augustin Bonrepaux is the regional boss, the incarnation of a local baron who collects multiple posts in public office and a network of influence. A Member of Parliament between 1981 and 2007 (during which time he was briefly chairman of the National Assembly‘s finance commission), he has been member of the Ariège General Council since 1976, and its president since 2001.    

He is also a deputy mayor of the village of Ax-les-Thermes (where he was previously mayor), and vice-president of the Ax Valleys’ ‘communauté de communes’ – a federation of 39 local communes (small municipalities) which include Ax-les-Thermes.

On top of all these posts, he is also president of the Syndicat Mixte Départementale d’Eau et Assainissement, SMDEA, the public body he founded in 2005 which programmes and finances investment for the maintenance and development of water supplies and sewage networks across the communes of the Ariège. He is also vice-president of a similar body dedicated to the electricity supply network, the SDCEA. The decisions of both these inter-commune bodies can be crucial for the small communes under their responsibility.

The law approved earlier this month by the French parliament which will ban MPs from holding any other public office will have no effect on the staggering number of multiple posts held by Bonrepaux or others like him.  

“I only receive my [pay] allowance as president of the General Council, 3,657 euros net per month,” says Bonrepaux, who insists that he has chosen not to receive income he has a right to from his other roles. He says he will not stand for re-election at the next cantonal elections, a vote which elects members of the General Council, due in 2015. That claim is subject to caution according to seasoned members of the local political scene who remember similar announcements from Bonrepaux in the past.

Augustin Bonrepaux’s son, Jean-Christophe Bonrepaux, has followed closely in his father’s footsteps. First secretary of the Ariège Socialist Party federation, Jean-Christophe Bonrepaux is also president of the ‘communauté de communes’ around the town of Foix, and mayor of Saint-Paul-de-Jarrat, a village in the foothills of the Pyrenees. “He has interested himself in the public thing, was chosen by [party] activists,” objects Bonrepaux the elder. “Doesn’t he have a right to? Where is that written into the constitution?”   

The management committee of the local Socialist Party federation counts others “close to HQ” as one local politician puts it. These include the federation’s treasurer who is the Ariège General Council’s director for economic development, along with the general secretary of the Foix town hall, and a parliamentary assistant for local socialist MP Alain Fauré. 

Jean-Christophe Bonrepaux is regarded by many locally as the obvious successor to his father, although he denies any such ambition. “I don’t think I’ll present myself for the cantonal elections, and absolutely not for the presidency of the General Council,” he says.

His brother Philippe is a director in charge of public lighting and energy with the electricity network management body, the SDCEA, of which his father is vice-president. “He’s an engineer,” says Augustin Bonrepaux. “He could have been recruited in [the nearby départements of] the Haute-Garonne, in the Tarn. He preferred the Ariège. He has the right or not?”

Take the case of the Massat family: in 2002, Frédérique Massat succeeded Augustin Bonrepaux as the socialist MP for Foix. She still holds the seat and is also a member of the General Council. Her father, René Massat, a former vice-president of the General Council, was MP for the only other National Assembly constituency in the Ariège, between 1985 and 1986 and then again from1988 until 1993. Massat, now 79, is still active and, with his ally Bonrepaux, pulls the strings on the local political scene. He is the vice president of the SMDEA, the water and sewage management body headed by Bonrepaux, and has long held the presidency of the electricity supply body, the SDCEA, where Bonrepaux is his deputy and which once employed his daughter, Frédérique Massat - who was made a deputy to the mayor of Foix when she was just 25 years old. 

Michel Barre, centre-right mayor of the small commune of Ignaux, part of the greater Ax-les-Thermes agglomeration run by Augustin Bonrepaux,  is one of very few local political figures to denounce such practices. “Massat, Bonrepaux and their apostles have the whole département under lock and key,” he says. “Everyone owes them something.”

Jean-Pierre Bel, président du Sénat © Reuters Jean-Pierre Bel, président du Sénat © Reuters

Besides Frédérique Massat, the only other MP in the Ariège is Alain Fauré, also socialist, who in 2012 succeeded Henri Nayrou (for whom he was deputy and substitute) and who had served as MP since 1997. Nayrou, a member of the General Council for 30 years, entered politics in 1983, after the death of his father Jean Nayrou, who had served as a Senator between 1955 and 1980. Henri Nayrou is due to end his political career next year.

The Ariège’s one Senator is socialist Jean-Pierre Bel, a close ally of President François Hollande and who became president of the Senate in 2011. He has climbed every stage of the local political ladder - regional councillor, head of the local Socialist Party federation, member of the General Council, mayor of Lavelanet and finally Senator in 2008. While his talent and his friendship with former socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin no doubt played a part in his success, he also owes it in part to the precious assistance of his father-in-law, Robert Naudi, who was president of the General Council from 1985 to 2001.    

Bel dismisses the suggestion that one needs a political godfather to be in politics in the Ariège. “It’s a small département, people know each other more, that’s how it is,” he says. “But this is a problem that doesn’t only concern the Ariège. Look at the Debré family! In fact, the comments are often unjust. The people concerned put in a lot of effort.”

Jean-Christophe Bonrepaux insists that the local Socialist Party federation is trying its best to attract new faces, but says that what he calls “social reproduction” is an obstacle. “Society doesn’t offer people who are not doused in a certain type of political culture the possibility of becoming involved,” he says.

Kamel Chibli, a socialist municipal councillor in Lavelanet and who works as an assistant for Senator Bel, is more forthright: “In this département, it was for a longtime considered that posts were given out by inheritance,” he comments.

A wind of change

Le syndicat des eaux (SMDEA), « bras séculier » du conseil général © M.M. Le syndicat des eaux (SMDEA), « bras séculier » du conseil général © M.M.

Debates at the general assemblies of the inter-commune water and electricity management bodies, the SMDEA and the SDCEA, headed in tandem by Bonrepaux and Massat, are locked down by supporters of the pair, claims Benoît Alvarez, the left-wing mayor of  Montgaillard who is a member of the opposition on the General Council. “If you don’t agree, you have 200 faces staring round at you,” he recounts. “There should at least be a secret vote.”

Mayor Michel Barre claims that his commune has received nothing in subsidies from the General Council since he has been openly opposed to Augustin Bonrepaux. Barre has for several months been involved in an ongoing dispute with the SMDEA over an unpaid bill. “They did everything to find a problem with me,” says Barre.

 “The SMDEA is the secular arm of the General Council,” jokes Michel Teychenné.

“Those who tell you that they are deprived of subsidies have the right to say that, but they [should] raise a complaint,” says Augustin Bonrepaux. “I have received none. What’s more, I see that they aren’t very numerous.”

Some see a political wind changing, which is weakening the local established order. One reason is that the development of the larger Midi-Pyrénées region, an administrative infrastructure in which the Ariège sits, is increasingly weakening the clout of the département and partly sapping the budget of its General Council. Meanwhile, right-wing parties have become established as the majority force in several places in the north of the Ariège where it meets the outer regions of the city of Toulouse, where there has also been an emergence of the far-right Front National.

There are also divisions opening up among the socialists in the Ariège. The mayor of Lavelanet, Marc Sanchez, who succeeded Jean-Pierre Bel after he became Senator, was last year found guilty and fined 2,500 euros for acting in conflict of interest over the designation of municipal funds to associations in which he had a private connection. He was found not guilty of the most serious charges against him, prompting him to say that he had “regained my honour”.  He has left the Socialist Party since the trial last October, but recently announced he will stand as an independent candidate for re-election as mayor in elections in March.

“A few weeks ago I saw the ones and the others,” says Jean-Pierre Bel. “There will be only one [electoral] list in Lavelanet, it will be led by Marc Sanchez and everyone on the Left will be on it.”

In Pamiers, Michel Teychenné recently left the Socialist Party after a heated dispute over the result of an internal election. He will lead a dissident bid for the town hall in the March elections, probably rallying Greens and the radical-left Front de Gauche to his electoral list of councillor candidates.

Finally, the old order is also threatened by new gender parity rules concerning the election of councillors to the General Council and which are due to come into effect as of 2015, when the next elections are held.  Up until 2011 there were no women members of the General Council. There are currently just three women members out of a total of 22 (see document below), and a number of their male colleagues, including some who have sat on the Council for decades, hold multiple public offices.

 

Under a law approved by parliament last year, the number of cantons – the constituencies which elect members of the General Council – will in 2015 be reduced to 13. The candidates will be a two-person, man and woman team, which will therefore result in an increase in the number of councillors – from 22 to 26 – and introduce strict gender parity. “The renewal of the General Council, which shapes the structure of local baronies, will bring a good dose of new blood and offer a better image to our constituents,” hopes Kamel Chibli. That of course will depend upon whether the future women candidates are indeed “new”.

Judicial probes and financial audits close in

But the reign of Augustin Bonrepaux faces another threat. In October 2012, he and two close allies, Pierre Peyronne and Christian Loubet, were placed under investigation (a French legal move one step short of charges being brought) for suspected favouritism in the awarding of a public contract.

The case centres upon the attribution in 2008 of a 40,000-euro contract awarded by the Ax-les-Thermes ‘communauté de communes’ (the federation of 39 local communes) of which Bonrepaux is vice-president, for a viability study of a mooted extension of a local care home for the elderly. It was handed to a company called CRP Consulting, which was at the time run by Pierrre Peyronne, the mayor of Ax-les-Thermes and whose deputy is Augustin Bonrepaux.

The regional audit office (a branch of the national Court of Accounts), reported that the contract was awarded in “very insufficient” conditions, and “was not in line with the interests of the ‘communauté de communes’”.

Bonrepaux has also been placed under investigation over the award of another contract, in 2009 and worth 36,000 euros, by the water and sewage management network, the SMDEA, of which he is president. This was for an audit of the proper functioning of the SMDEA, and it was also handed to Peyronne’s company CRP Consulting.

The SMDEA is currently the object of a detailed investigation by the regional audit office. Mediapart understands that a report on its initial findings underlines mismanagement and a perilous financial situation.

“I don’t know precisely about these cases but I have personal confidence in Augustin Bonrepaux,” says Senator Jean-Pierre Bel. “It’s not because there’s an investigation that people must be decapitated. When you are elected, you sometimes take risks that expose you, but it’s not dishonesty.”

In repeated comments to the local press, Bonrepaux has said he has not been informed by the Toulouse magistrate in charge of the investigations the reasons for his implication. However, Mediapart has had access to the official notification sent to Bonrepaux by the magistrate, Philippe Guichard, and which cites the crime of favouritism. In the document signed by the magistrate, Bonrepaux is informed that he is suspected of having “procured, or attempted to procure, an unjustified advantage for CRP Consulting SA”.

Mediapart has learnt that the regional audit office has also recently launched an investigation of the General Council, and notably into a controversial investment lobbying ‘club’ that was set up in its midst. This follows allegations by a former financial manager of the club, the ‘Club ariégeois Pyrénées investissement’, or CAPI, that it was involved in under-the-table payments, suspicious transfers of funds and the organizing of lavish entertainment parties paid out of the public purse.

The CAPI, which was finally wound down in 2012, was headed by Alain Juillet, a former director of the French intelligence services, the DGSE.

“I have nothing to fear on the issue of the CAPI,” claims Bonrepaux. “We financed it, and when we saw that it was going awry we got rid of it. I almost died a few weeks ago, so you’ll understand that I feel serene.”

The regional audit office is due to publish the findings of its investigation into the General Council at the end of this year, just months before the next cantonal elections to elect the new members of the Council.

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English version by Graham Tearse

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