World Mayor 2020

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World Mayor Essays
François Decoster
Mayor of Saint-Omer, France
By Sean O'Curneen*

OTHER ESSAYS: Mayor of Ankara ||| Mayor of Braga ||| Mayor of Bratislava ||| Mayor of Grigny ||| Maire de Grigny (Français) ||| Mayor of Mannheim ||| Mayor of Raqqa ||| Mayor of Rotterdam ||| Mayor of Saint-Omer ||| Maire de Saint-Omer (Français) ||| Mayor of San Bellino ||| Sindaco di San Bellino |||

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(L'essai en français)

If you are a person who enjoys surprises, you are really going to like Saint Omer. If there was an index that measured surprises per capita, it's quite possible that this town would rank amongst the highest in its country, and almost certainly of its region. For the city of Saint Omer is full of them, and it's hard to know which one to introduce you to first. Perhaps the first surprise is that you are reading about this town of 15,000 people in connection with the World Mayor Project. But that will only be a surprise to those who don't know Mayor François Decoster. To those who have seen him in action, the fact that he has received such international recognition for his work, will come as no surprise at all.

Saint Omer
François was born outside of the municipal boundaries, but almost immediately moved with his parents to become a resident of Saint Omer, a town with an illustrious history and many accomplishments going back many centuries. Indeed, more recently overshadowed when it comes to international name-recognition by its nearest peers, Lille, Calais, Dunkirk, few people know that Saint Omer was in fact one of the earliest settlements in the western world to receive the status of a city. The date is not clear, but there is evidence going back almost a thousand years. Thus, if François Decoster doesn't have municipalism running through his veins, he certainly grew up breathing the air of municipal history.

For most of those many centuries, Saint Omer was on a par with the other cities of the region and it even had greater international name-recognition than they did. The clues to its important place in history are immediately evident to the first-time visitor well before arriving, as its cathedral of Notre Dame can be easily spotted when approaching from a distance. And it soon becomes apparent to the visitor when strolling through the old part of town that it wasn't just religion, but also the pursuit of knowledge and culture that have been driving forces throughout Saint Omer's history.

Tracing its origins back to the foundation of two 7th century monasteries in the area, the town quickly grew in regional and strategic importance because of its economic and cultural activity, inevitably changing hands several times in the early centuries between France and the Netherlands, becoming permanently French from 1678 onwards. It was in those years, as a result of religious conflict between protestants and catholics, when Saint Omer's international outlook took off: the Jesuit College founded in 1568 became a major centre for English and American catholics, seeking instruction in catholicism. And here comes one of the biggest surprises associated with this town: the foundation of the American republic, the United States of America, has links with Saint Omer. One of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton studied at Saint Omer, as did one of the signatories to the United States Constitution, Daniel Carroll, as did John Carroll, the first Catholic bishop of the United States. All three of them were members of the same family, but they were not the only Americans to spend time in Saint Omer at the Jesuit College, and the city has maintained ties with the United States to this day.

It is precisely this combination of international outlook, historical heritage, and cultural dynamism which has been at the core of François' political and social activism. His first involvement as a teenager, was in a local association that helped orphans in Cambodia and in Romania, as well as helping local deprived children to play football, or to visit the Coupole – a World War Two museum and astronomical planetarium, just 5km outside Saint Omer, inside what was an underground V2 missile launch site, built by the Nazis using slave labour, with the purpose of bombing Britain.

Mayor François Decoster
The calling of public service came to François very early and by the age of 22 he was on the list of candidates to the local council. "For me", he says, "there was never any doubt about where I would practice politics. It had to be in the place where I grew up and have always lived." His mother, however, had other plans and, worried about a career in politics for her young son, she had a quiet word with the mayor and asked that he make sure that François would not get elected. So, unaware of his mother's parallel campaign, François ended up low down on the list of candidates, and just missed out on becoming an elected democratic representative. Although his mother's plan had worked, it did not last for long, because François became the de-facto first-in-line to fill any vacancy on the Council. Sure enough, two years later a councillor resigned and François took office for the first time. It was 1997. Seventeen years later, the people of Saint Omer – the Audomarois, so called after the medieval bishop Audomarus, later canonized as Saint Omer, and who is buried in the town - would entrust François with the overall responsibility for managing the affairs of the city.

Those intervening years gave François the opportunity to develop his understanding of local government as well as of the wider world. A passionate European, he studied at the College of Europe in the Belgian city of Bruges, developed a professional career in national public administration, and travelled to all five continents, such that today he says he has been around the world several times. And all the time, he remained engaged with and committed to Saint Omer. If all of that sounds impressive, it is. Yet, to those who have seen François in action, it's simply the way he is. Indeed, he has the most extraordinary ability to juggle many things at the same time, able to listen to a complex briefing while responding to messages on his phone coming directly to him from citizens of Saint Omer, or from political colleagues, and then give an informed decision in response to the oral briefing. And all with an astonishing degree of unflappability, and always with the utmost courtesy.

So, when the 2014 local elections arrived in France, the time was right. François had seen the world, experienced government at several levels, had an intimate knowledge of his city's history and potential, and had ideas and energy to offer the people of Saint Omer. The first thing he wanted to do was to show them how he intended to govern, and the campaign offered him the perfect opportunity. He organised a very open and dynamic campaign, going door-to-door unlike the opposition, organised dozens of private "apéritifs" each with a small selection of citizens to chat about the town over a drink, and introduced the "Ballades urbaines", urban strolls where he would simply walk down a street with his team chatting to any residents who wished to come and meet him. "It was important for me that the Audomarois would see that I intended to govern in an open manner giving them direct access to their mayor", he says.

The election results were close, but François became Mayor Decoster after winning 47% of the votes to 44% to his main rival. It is often said that some people go into politics to be something, while others go into politics to achieve something. François is most definitely among the latter, and the transformation of the city began immediately on his first day of the six-year mandate. He had promised to revive the town's heritage, so he immediately set out to find the necessary funding to re-open the beautiful neoclassical 19th century "Italian-style" theatre nestled inside the old Town Hall which had been closed for 45 years for security reasons. Four years later it re-opened with seats for more than 300 theatre-lovers, with all the modern security and operational features, fully respecting the heritage, becoming a sort of cathedral of culture, not just for the town itself, but appealing to the wider region.

In 2016, François put together a partnership that purchased the old abandoned railway station, with the help of European Union funding, in order to convert it into a hub of innovation, creativity, and start ups, not just for Saint Omer, but for the wider region, and which was inaugurated in 2019, five years after his election.

And as if to prove his point that a city can only be transformed through a collective effort, when he launched an initiative to celebrate the historical ties between Saint Omer and the United Kingdom, the librarian of Saint Omer's impressive library discovered in its spectacular medieval collection, a long-forgotten First Folio of William Shakespeare, one of only 233 surviving first editions of the complete works of the English bard. It is now proudly displayed alongside the original first edition of Gutenberg's bible which is also part of the Saint Omer collection.

Celebrating such international connections comes naturally to François, and he was determined to share that spirit with the Audomarois, in particular to celebrate the European dimension of their identity. Every 9th of May, the city celebrates Europe Day, with guided tours of those places in the town which have received EU funds for redevelopment, as well as debates and festivities.

It is therefore not surprising that since 2014, Saint Omer has experienced the highest population growth of any municipality in the department of Pas-de-Calais. Unemployment has dropped by 25%, the town is more lively, and when the elections came around again in 2020, the Audomarois rewarded Mayor Decoster with a resounding 66% of the vote, in the middle of a pandemic.  

And it's the security and health of his citizens, which has been uppermost in François' mind for the past year and a half. He set up online question-and-answer sessions with the local doctor to inform citizens about COVID-19, he made sure that Saint Omer was one of the first city administrations to provide masks to the local population, and he is now focusing on how to bring back the "joie-de-vivre" to the town as the pandemic restrictions are eased. When that occurs he will turn to the other challenges he had identified for his second mandate: providing better homes for those living in low quality 19th century or post-war housing, building homes for the newcomers, investing in people and infrastructure, and further developing participatory democracy, so that neighbourhood committees can better use the small budgets they receive of 7,000 EUR to carry out small scale local investments, empowering the citizens and encouraging responsibility. "Governing is a process, it takes time, and it's about team work," says François.

The people of Saint Omer are busy at work, revitalising their town, reclaiming its place on the international scene, and sharing with the world the many surprises of which they are custodians. 

*Sean O’Curneen
Sean O'Curneen is Secretary General of the Renew Europe Group in the European Committee of the Regions. For more than 20 years he has worked closely with mayors from all over Europe, first between 2000 and 2004 in the International & European Affairs unit of the Mayor of London, and from 2004 in his current position. He has a Masters in European Politics from the University of London's Birkbeck College, and a Masters in Journalism from the University of Aix-Marseille. He writes and narrates the Letter from Brussels podcast, which is available on most major podcast platforms.