This morning, as I was walking to the municipal gymnasium in the medium-sized town just outside Paris where I live, I walked through the municipal park. Three gardeners were mowing the grass and tending the borders. I must admit that it looked magnificent in a pale morning sun. Primroses and dark blue, yellow and white pansies are in full bloom, daffodils and forsythia are coming out, the tulips are not far behind and the climbing roses have been neatly cut back and trained around their wooden frames. The gardeners were equipped with regulation clothing, boots and gloves, garden tools and two modern lawn mowers. The had wiped off the well varnished wrought iron and wooden benches and placed clean bags inside the rubbish cans next to each one. Behind the park, there is a large and well-equipped playground where children from the surrounding flats can meet after school or on a Sunday afternoon to play basketball, football or use the slides and swings. In the background is a handsome and well-maintained 19th century building that houses an internationally renowned centre specialised in the teaching of French as a second language. A plaque recalling De Gaulle’s stirring address of June 18, 1940, (“France has lost a battle, but France has not lost the war”), almost standard issue in most municipalities, is displayed on a patch of grass near the entrance.
None of this of course is done on a shoestring. For a not too taxing 35 hour working week, the three well-equipped municipal gardeners I saw at work this morning are probably paid a little more than the minimum wage of about €1200 month, including, as they are local authority civil servants, fairly automatic wage increases and more generous health and pension benefits than they would get in the private sector. A recent, half-baked local authority reform was supposed to save money and generate greater efficiency but has clearly failed to have any impact on manpower. Although the national headcount of local authority civil servants has not increased, it certainly hasn’t fallen. And as central government subsidies to local authorities have been severely pruned, local taxes have tended to increase. In his municipal newsletter, our mayor consistently finds apologetic and convoluted explanations for the necessary increase in local taxes. In spite of almost zero inflation, they have risen by about 7% in the last three years. For a modest (77m2) apartment in an early 1960s block of flats, I pay a total of about €2500 a year in local taxes.
All that being said, when I listen to the BBC Today Programme and regularly hear tales of woe from local authorities throughout Britain, some of which are closing libraries and parks because they can no longer afford to keep them open, I don’t grumble too much as I fill in my on-line tax payment form every autumn. Well-stocked municipal flower beds may be feel-good projects but they undoubtedly do contribute to the quality of life in our town.