In France, 36,000 villages, towns and cities held the first round of mayoral elections in March and will finally hold the second round next weekend, after a three-month delay caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Chris Bockman interviewed one of the hopefuls – the nonagenarian Andre Trigano.
“I hope I am not going to have to apologise again for not being dead.”
That was my introduction to the dapper, and witty, mayor of the town of Pamiers, in the foothills of the French Pyrenees – population, 16,000.
Andre Trigano is 94 years old and has been in public office for close to 50 years.
He came top in the first round of the election in March and if he wins the second round on 28 June he will be 101 years old at the end of his mandate.
There are other elderly mayors clinging on to the reins of power – including a 98-year-old standing for re-election in a village near Bordeaux – but none has a back story quite as colourful as Trigano’s.
Born in Paris in 1925, he was a teenager during the German occupation of the city in World War Two. His parents, Jewish immigrants from Algeria, were advised to flee by a police officer living in their building, who told them that the Gestapo had drawn up a warrant for their arrest.
They took cover in the mountainous Ariège region, in the south of France, and the young Trigano joined the Resistance. He forged documents to help allied servicemen – often airmen who’d been shot down – escape to Spain. He was arrested three times, but somehow he survived.
After the war, he chose to stay in the south and went into business.
His experiences during the occupation had convinced him that the only way to prevent a repeat of the horrors of the past was to get people from different backgrounds and nationalities to go on holiday together.
His father and an elder brother had set up a tent-making business before the war and he set up a camping holiday business. Then the family got a contract to supply tents to the newly created Club Med, and Andre’s brother Gilbert, went to work for the company becoming its financial director, then its president and director general.
Although Club Med is now renowned for luxury hotels, for the first 15 years of its existence guests stayed in tents and grass huts, and Andre helped to source some of the original tents – US Army surplus tents for 10 people that were abundant after the war in continental Europe, and cheap. The idea was to provide simple communal holidays in the sunshine, in locations such as Majorca, Corfu and Djerba in Tunisia. The Club Med mantra, which Andre Trigano would have approved of and may have helped to inspire, was that everyone was equal on holiday.
The Trigano tent-making business prospered, thanks partly to the French state’s decision in the mid-1950s to increase paid leave to three weeks per year. It became a major player in the outdoor goods and caravan industry with the slogan, in the 1970s, Le camping – c’est Trigano (Camping – it’s Trigano). Meanwhile, Andre’s outdoor holiday firm accumulated dozens of campsites in France, Spain and Portugal.
The cash helped him assemble a collection of 120 classic cars, including vintage Citroens, Cadillacs, Triumphs, Rolls Royces, and an Excalibur.
But increasingly Trigano focused on politics, turning this corner of the Pyrenees into his personal political fiefdom. He has been mayor of Pamiers, the largest town in the Ariege, for 25 years. Before that he was mayor of a smaller town, Mazeres, for 24 years – and simultaneously, for a while, an MP in the national parliament in Paris.
He says his personal wealth inspires trust: people are less worried he’ll try to use his position for his own profit.
So why, after all this time in public office, is he running again?
He says he still has plenty of unfinished business, including plans to renovate the centre of Pamiers, which is a pocket of poverty surrounded by dozens of factories working overtime to make parts for the aerospace industry.
“Every night I go to sleep and wake up with a dozen great new ideas for the town,” he says.
But his age has, inevitably, been used against him by his rivals. The two I spoke to both said it was time for him to go.
Yes, he did a lot for the town in the past, said one of them – Maryline Doussat, who runs a local bakery with 20 employees – but he’s turned into an elderly autocrat.
This explains Trigano’s joke about hoping he won’t have to apologise for not being dead.
“Do I sound lucid? Do I make sense?” he asks me rhetorically, an hour into the interview.
These young – or at least, younger – wannabes must wait their turn, he says.
“When you build a 10-storey building, you don’t change architects after the fifth floor – that makes no sense,” he chuckles.
With a twinkle in his eye, he tells me that he has run in 19 different elections from mayor to regional council, and parliament and lost just once.
“If anyone wants my job, they will have fight for it!”
Chris Bockman is the author of Are you the foie gras correspondent? Another slow news day in south-west France.