French mayors are among the least transparent – and controlled – local officials in Europe. In a piece first published in May, 2013, The Essential Edge explores some of the more recent cases.

By the Editors

Foreigners living in France, particularly from more transparent countries such as Germany or the Netherlands, are often horrified by how much leeway French mayors have in deciding who gets which contracts or which planning gets shoved through without proper public consultation or accountability. Jules Emery, former conservative mayor of Cessy in the Pays de Gex and the second longest serving communal head in France at the time (37 years), was one such individual who certainly did not believe in keeping his constituents fully informed,, a highly useful site exploring the French property market, examines two recent cases of abuse of public office by local mayors, including Emery.

Jules Emery, Mayor of Cessy

Jules Emery, the French mayor in the commune of Cessy (Rhône-Alpes), was recently found guilty in the French civil courts of deception in the purchase of agricultural land he knew was to be zoned for development by his council. The sale of the land in April 2000 was to him and his wife in their private capacity. It had been earmarked for development since 1993, although at the time of the sale there had been no change in the local plan.

Information on the development status of the land was annexed to the sale contract, details of which were provided to the sellers by the notaire. The most recent information was 1998.

In June 2000, only two months after the sale, the revised local plan was formally approved by the council, including the changed planning status of the land. Despite the advanced stage of the prospective approval of the local plan and re-zoning of the land in the sale as ‘zone constructible’, this information was not brought to the attention of the sellers by the mayor.

The Cour de Cassation considered that the mayor knew what was going on – “il avait une parfaite connaissance de la révision en cours du plan d’occupation des sols et notamment du fait que le bien acheté allait devenir constructible.” Accordingly, he was found guilty of deception in not disclosing the prospective approval of the revisions to the local plan, and the important implications this had on the value of the land.

The value of the prejudice suffered by the seller had been considered by the Cour d’appel sitting at Lyon to be €663,000, a judgement against which the mayor appealed to the French Supreme Court, the Cour de Cassation. The mayor lost the appeal, and the sellers obtained annulment of the sale, together with costs of €2,500 and damages of the same amount.

Jacques Benoît, Mayor of Bouillé-Loretz

In a criminal case heard in the Poitou-Charentes region, Jacques Benoît, the mayor of the commune of Bouillé-Loretz was found guilty of pursuing an illegal personal interest in the purchase of a former post office owned by the council. French law forbids local politicians from buying public assets whilst they hold office.

Although full details are sketchy, in order to camouflage his purchase the mayor set up two French property companies – Société Civile Immobilière (SCI) – in which his son was a shareholder. The mayor provided a loan of the full purchase price of €48,750 to his son to enable purchase of the property, which duly occurred in November 2010.

The value of the post office had been independently estimated at between €55,000 and €65,000. An offer of €73,000 had actually been made by an interested buyer, but no details of this offer appeared in the council minutes. When the aggrieved party found out about the sale, it was they who made a formal complaint, resulting in an investigation by the local police.

The local criminal court fined the mayor €7,500 and, most unusually, banned him from public office for three years. As the mayor has appealed the decision, he remains in office, at least until the council elections in 2014.

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