World Mayor 2020

World Mayor vote 20/21
François Decoster
Mayor of Saint-Omer, France
answers your questions

World Mayor invited participants in the 2021 Project to put questions to François Decoster. From the questions received, a representative selection was forwarded to the Mayor. He replies with candour, thoughtfulness and in great detail.

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Question by Marie B., Lille:
What made you enter politics and run for Mayor of Saint-Omer ?

Mayor Decoster replies:
I have always thought that everyone has a role to take in our collective life. Since I was a child, I have always tried to commit myself to my community. Every positive action, big or small, is a positive action. I remember that when I was ten years old, I had organized a drawing competition to get a bit of money for my school's charity programme: I collected just a few French francs as my initiative had only a modest success and went to the school headmaster with the little  box containing this rather reduced financial support.

I was congratulated by the school headmaster and what he then said still means a lot to me: “small streams make big rivers”. In the following years, I went on to develop initiatives to support Cambodian refugees with financial help, Romanian orphans with convoys of food and materials, I would organize trips for children of my town who could not take holidays, etc. I have never stopped being a member of associations, I have always believed I should try to participate actively to the creation of solutions. When I reached the age to be candidate in the municipal elections, I had already joined a political party, and the Mayor of Saint-Omer, the town I grew up in, was aware of my involvement in our town's life. I was then a student and he tried to reach out to me through my mother who gave him my details after he promised to her I would not join too quickly the city council. Indeed, the Mayor offered me quite a low position on his list and the day of our victory, I was the first candidate of our list not to be elected. Two years later, after one deputy-mayor resigned, I joined the city council.

It was more than 23 years ago. A few years later, I became the youngest deputy-mayor and years later, I was asked to run for Mayor. We worked hard to create a fantastic team and started hundreds of conversations, meetings, and workshops to write what would become our municipal manifesto: a whole project to transform our town, with a place for every good idea!

Question by Jacques B., France:
During the past years, you have been praised as a thought leader and a man of action, both locally and internationally and especially in Europe. How does your local knowledge help you to better understand international challenges and vice-versa, what does your extensive international experience contribute to being a better mayor?

Mayor Decoster replies:
My involvement has always been both at the local and international levels. I consider that being involved at both levels has been extremely efficient or even productive for both of them: when I am active at the European level, most of my views and statements are rooted in my local experience. When I talk about the migration crisis, I talk having in mind what I can manage in my own town where we welcome more than 2,000 young migrants each year, because we are not far from Calais and the English Channel. When I talk about the involvement of citizens in the local life, I take examples from my own policies and local proposals to involve my fellow citizens more in the decision-making process in Saint-Omer e.g. in the framework of the neighbourhood councils I created 6 years ago. So I would say my local experience is very useful for my international involvement. Meeting other mayors in Brussels and throughout the EU is also very useful for my local management: I take examples and good practices from what I can hear at the Committee of the Regions.

I also visit other towns in Europe, such as Mechelen in Belgium to study the involvement of people in the cleaning of their own streets and sidewalks or Detmold, our twin town in Germany to study their cultural policy, or even Chios in Greece to have an exchange of views on the consequences for our towns of the new flows of migration. Those international exchanges are extremely useful to help me in my local management. This is why I see being involved at the local and international levels as two sides of the same coin, which symbolizes my understanding of modern administration.

Question by Martin W., France:
How can your work for the European Committee of the Regions bring the benefits of the European Green Deal to Saint-Omer?

Mayor Decoster replies:
My involvement at the European Committee of the Regions brings a lot of benefits for the implementation of the European Green Deal in Saint-Omer: first, members regularly exchange good practices in the framework of the CoR's commissions or at the level of the plenary session. This has revealed to me better ways to use the European funds to achieve the goals of the European Green Deal: for example, we are rebuilding the courtyard and the immediate surroundings of one of the public schools in Saint-Omer and to do so, we used European Funds to shape our intervention so it will be able to better control the production of heat and keep some to maintain the temperature at a reasonable level: this is the European programme “Cool towns”, with more trees, more vegetation, specific materials for a better comfort for pupils and schoolteachers. At the same time, this is a wonderful example for the whole town of how we can work differently and participate via concrete actions in the fight against climate change. More broadly, as the European Committee of the Regions is very committed, together with the European Commission, in implementing the European Convenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, I proposed to the mayors of Ieper (Belgium) and Detmold (Germany) to sign together the Convenant of Mayors and to involve young people of our three towns in the follow-up of its implementation. Young people would then evaluate our actions when they take place and not years after they occurred. The signatures took place during a ceremony celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of our town-twinnings: quite a nice symbol and great messages for the young generations!

Question by Anne L., Saint-Omer:
How do you manage to combine your work for the Hauts-de-France region, Europe and the municipality of Saint-Omer?

Mayor Decoster replies:
I have two official elected positions : Mayor of Saint-Omer and Vice-president of Hauts-de-France Region. It is quite frequent in France that members of Regional Councils are also mayors. They bring their experience of managing towns and villages to the Regional Council and therefore help shape better and more efficient regional policies. Out of the 170 candidates of our list for the regional elections last June, 60 were mayors and many other deputy-mayors or members of municipal councils. Clearly, the combination is well appreciated both by the leader of our list but also by voters as we got a huge support and clearly won the elections. It is also a very good opportunity for Saint-Omer that its mayor is one of the Vice-presidents of the Region (there are 15 VPs for a Region of 6 million inhabitants): it gives a more direct access to information and more visibility. At the European Committee of the Regions, all members need to have a local or regional mandate to be a member. That is one of the prerequisites. In my case, I have two good reasons to be a member of the Committee with both my local and regional mandates! The combination of those responsibilities requires a good management of time and schedule. With the help of a wonderful (and rather small) team, I think we succeed!

Question by Lucas L. and François C., France:
Saint-Omer has become more and more internationally connected. For example, through twinning with other cities, school exchanges and international programmes. How can a small city like Saint-Omer benefit from international cooperation and what has Saint-Omer to offer its partners?

Mayor Decoster replies:
Saint-Omer has developed its international partnerships through town-twinnings with four towns in Germany, Belgium, United Kingdom and more recently (2015) Poland, through a strong partnership with the State of Maryland (USA), which is the result of the presence in Saint-Omer between 1592 and 1763 of English Jesuits and their pupils coming from all over the world (including many migrants in the British colonies in America),  and we have created the Saint-Omer Foundation to develop specific cooperation with Maryland in the fields of education, culture and research, and we have also developed international cooperation of our urban planning agency with African and Asian partners, in particular in the field of water supply.

This international openness of Saint-Omer is a strong asset for its citizens: it shows we all live on the same planet. Sometimes, our issues are common to people living thousands of kilometres away, and sometimes our difficulties are nothing compared to what our partners have to face. I consider these partnerships as strong opportunities for the citizens of Saint-Omer as they offer them a new window to the world and quite often opportunities to travel, e.g. the 72 musicians of our Wind Orchestra went on a tour to America for a series of concerts in Maryland State and in Washington DC (whereas the Washington Wind Orchestra has not yet had the opportunity to fly to Saint-Omer for a concert!).

After their trip to Taiwan, and before their concerts planned in 2022 in South Korea, playing in America was a great recognition of their talents and a wonderful source of pride for themselves and their families. It's the same for our rink-hockey players when they have to compete against international teams or our canoe-kayak club when they hosted the European Championships in 2017 and who are now preparing to organize a World Championship that will take place in Saint-Omer in 2022.

Offering reasons to be proud of who we are and of what we can deliver, with opportunities to discover the world as it is and to create new friendships, this is also what results from a well developed  international cooperation. It also reveals what our town really is: a town of thirteen centuries of age, that was even larger than London or Amsterdam in the Middle Ages, where a particular relationship between Man and biosphere has developed since the very foundation of Saint-Omer, which expressed itself today with a dedicated label by UNESCO and its membership of the Ramsar Convention on humid zones. Finally, I will take the example of the rediscovery of the Shakespeare’s First Folio in our local library in 2014: in itself it was a proud moment for the citizens of Saint-Omer, but reading how the world media such as CNN, the New York Times or the Daily Telegraph covered the event together with hundreds of papers and videos was even a greater source of pride! Altogether, this international openness contributes to reveal our own identity not only to our partners but also to ourselves!

Question by Yves F., Saint-Omer:
How do you suggest for Saint-Omer to take advantage of its geographical position between the coast and the Lille-Lens-Arras conurbation?

Mayor Decoster replies:
I do believe that medium-sized towns or urban districts have huge assets to offer to provide their inhabitants an excellent quality of life. The time when added value and economic growth were only concentrated in large metropolitan areas, is over. Under the condition that we equip medium-sized towns like Saint-Omer with modern facilities, we really have the possibility to offer a better quality of life than in very large towns.

In that way, being positioned between the Lille conurbation (one of the largest in France, at the crossroads of European routes) and the coast is of high value for our town: we take the benefits of being close to Lille and the Channel ports such as Calais or Dunkerque, ensuring our connection with larger towns and their services, open to the British Isles (more and more English people are moving to our town).

And for the price of a flat in Lille, you can buy a house or even an “hôtel particulier” in Saint-Omer! And in Saint-Omer, you live in a medium-sized town surrounded by nature, 700 kms of waterways, and a regional park! Our geographical position links us to the Flemish and Dutch cultures, which is also an asset. What I tried to develop in the last 7 years is to guarantee to all inhabitants or people who might consider moving to Saint-Omer that they will benefit from the facilities of a modern town.

This is true for sport and culture facilities, coworking sites and fablab (digital fabrication labs)… An important role for me has been to communicate externally what assets Saint-Omer has to offer, as well as its transformation and its modernization. That’s one of the reasons why I participate in many regional and national events: as a result, we gained around 10% of population in one single municipal term! The post-Covid 19 society will probably make towns of our size more attractive, for all those reasons!

Question by Frank H., Germany:
As mayor of Saint-Omer, what concrete measures are you pursuing in the field of ‘sustainability’?

Mayor Decoster replies:
One of my deputy-mayors is now dedicated to transitions (plural): we are trying to work in two directions, both the digital transition (our coworking and fablab center of 3.000 sqm is already a national reference) and the ecological transition. Our town has a very specific responsibility, firstly because of its history.

Saint-Omer was established in the middle of a swamp during the 7th century: monks transformed this territory into a fruitful marshland (still cultivated today, the last one in France), making out of this respectful relationship between Man and Nature one of our town’s main characteristics.

Today, we are fully committed to reducing our own CO2 emissions: this involves a full program to renovate our municipal buildings that we are implementing with ADEME (national agency in charge of energetic issues). For the last 7 years, we’ve been developing a very ambitious housing policy as more than 50% of our houses were built before the Second World War (and a large part of them during the 17th and 18th centuries) and need to be renovated to reduce energy consumption.

There is also a new transport policy together with the urban district (and the number of the users of our public transport system has doubled in the last years). Sustainability also means to better associate all the citizens to decisions not only on environmental issues (for instance, we have created an annual forum of all associations committed to environmental issues to ensure a common evaluation and follow-up of our policies) but also on all matters (this is the function of our neighbourhood committees, and we organize large and open dialogues before every important project, even if the project has been announced in our electoral manifesto).

Question by Denise K., Paris:
What measures have you taken / will you take this year to improve the environment of Saint-Omer?

Mayor Decoster replies:
This year, we are pursuing our ambitious program to plant new trees in our town: more than 2,000 have already been planted in the last months. This program does not mean the end of our project “one birth, one tree” as we will continue to plant a new tree in the surrounding forests for every birth. We will soon achieve our project to transform the school courtyard to better capture CO2 emissions and favour a cool temperature (the European programme I mentioned earlier). We want to propose a common project to Tesla to test their photovoltaic tiles on the roof of one of our historic monuments.

Question by Violette R., Saint-Omer:
According to France’s Environmental Code, every French municipality must install ‘free expression panels’ (des panneaux d’expression libre). Why are none available in Saint-Omer?

Mayor Decoster replies:
I am very attached not only to the freedom of expression but also to the direct participation of citizens in our municipal life. We even have, every year, a Citizenship Day, the topic of which is directly chosen by the members of the neighbourhood committees. As I explained to Violette, whom I met in a social event organized by our rugby club, the free expression panels are an important tool and Saint-Omer has normally some in all its different neighbourhoods. They have been removed to be relocated according to the process of labelling our town as a Remarkable Heritage Site by the French Ministry for Culture, which means a new policy in terms of advertising policy. Meanwhile, Violette has found other places to express her fight for equal rights for women and we do respect that a lot as this topic is one of the new priorities of the current municipal term.

Question by Philippe B., Saint-Omer:
You are keen for people to take up cycling. Are you ready to support the mandatory wearing of helmets for cyclist of all ages to reduce the number of serious head injuries?

Mayor Decoster replies:
It is true that our municipality is very committed to the promotion of cycling as a means of transport for short trips of the everyday life. We work on the adaptation of our streets (with dedicated corridors for bikes, two-way streets for bikes…), on the development of secure parking slots for bikes, on reducing the average speed of cars in our town (mostly 30 km/h) on the financial help to buy a bike (classical bike or electric bike) and also on the behaviour of cyclists to ensure their security. When we help citizens of Saint-Omer to buy a bike, we also recommend them to buy security items (such as helmets) and we have created a dedicated financial help to do so. When we educate all the pupils of our school how to ride and respect the Road Safety Rules, they have to wear helmets. Our town promotes the wearing of helmets, even if it lacks the competence to make the wearing of helmets mandatory (as it is the national state that can take such a decision).

Question by Sabine L. François C. and Martin W., Saint-Omer:
You are keen for young people to make their home in Saint-Omer. What does the municipality do to make the city attractive in terms of job opportunities as well as cultural, sport and leisure activities?

Mayor Decoster replies:
It is true that we have developed special programmes to help young people (under 35) to become owners of their home. Those programmes follow a set of criteria : it has to be for first ownerships and for the purchase of old houses (half of the houses of Saint-Omer were built before WW2): thus the programmes help the renovation of houses as their subsidies cover the cost of renovations (in particular to reduce energy consumption).The programmes help young people of Saint-Omer but also newcomers (and we have gained 10% of population in the last years).

These programmes can help develop the attractiveness of the town but they need to be complemented by strong developments in terms of job creation, culture, sport or leisure activities. Fortunately, Saint-Omer and its region have been one of the most dynamic areas in Hauts-de-France in terms of reduction of unemployment (falling by 25% in 5 years) thanks to an amibitious programme of support to the creation of new companies (such as one of the largest breweries in France or a new paper producer) and activities (the world leader of glass making is located in the Saint-Omer urban district and feeds a large network of SMEs). We have developed a concept of “path of the entrepreneur”, through which the public authorities accompany new businesses from the very first idea to the implementation: doing so, we have created an overall new message based on the idea that Saint-Omer is a land of opportunities, independently of its size.

Lately, the French designer Nelly Biche de Bere moved to Saint-Omer after 15 years in New York because she felt an energy in our town that she had not found in other French towns of the same size. One of her first visits to Saint-Omer took place during our famous Jazz Festival: she could not believe a town like ours could organize every year such a festival with 25 concerts and an audience over 10,000 people.

Culture matters (we have reopened our Italian-style theatre after it was closed for 45 years, we have inaugurated new cultural facilities such as our huge Jesuits’ Chapel, and our music school of 2,600 pupils is now the largest to the North of Paris…), and sports matters (we are one of the towns that has been selected for the preparation of the Paris Olympic Games of 2024, on the basis of our sports policy). Attracting new players in those fields, developing new challenges is a matter of willingness and faith. Like the chicken and the egg, you don’t know what came first but it has to occur: if you believe in the attractiveness of your town, your town will attract new people, creating the examples that will soon create the positive reputation that many investors look for!

When we organized the National Cycling Championship in 2017 (the second largest event in cycling after the Tour de France), we were aiming at becoming visible to millions of viewers.

When Shakespeare’s First Folio was discovered in our library, we elaborated a communication strategy to become visible internationally: as a consequence, we subsequently became partners of London’s Globe Theatre! After 7 years as mayor, I believe in Mark Twain’s quotation: “They did not know it was impossible, so they did it”, and I think all mayors could give examples to illustrate it! Finally, all newcomers to Saint-Omer are invited (once they have moved) to share a breakfast with me: it helps me to understand why they decided to move to Saint-Omer but it also lets me provide them with the most accurate information on our town and its policies, so that they can in turn become excellent advocates of Saint-Omer among their families and friends that still live in their town of origin! Experience has shown this to be one of the most effective communication tools!

Question by Nicolas K., Lucas L., Saint-Omer and Frank. H. Germany:
Post Covid, what plans do you have for Saint-Omer when it is finally allowed to fully re-open fully and what do you believe will be the biggest challenges?

Mayor Decoster replies:
We have not been through the Covid-19 crisis yet even if things are improving. We can already foresee what will be the most difficult challenges in the post-Covid period. I think it may not concern only the economic field: I even think that the real challenge will be on the social and societal aspects. The Covid-19 crisis has created new social fractures and new social behaviours: during the crisis, we fought against enforced loneliness of vulnerable people and I think we will have to pursue or even develop our actions in this area.

Although the pandemic has been a collective threat, it has broken so many social links that one of the main responsibilities of political leaders will consist in recreating links or bridges between people. In this respect, we are creating a new voluntary programme of visits to lonely people. But we will have to find ways to support culture and sport, so that they continue being factors of social integration. And mayors will have a huge responsibility in helping social cohesion to maintain in a period of uncertainty: there will not be one day when the crisis will be over, it will be a long transition, making the situation quite delicate. It will require a constant adaptation of our municipal policies, and mayors will have to explain constant changes to citizens who generally expect clear leadership.

In that way, the fact that mayors are the political leaders who enjoy high levels of trust from the citizens, will give them a very particular responsibility to ensure that proximity helps efficiency!

Question by Denis B., Saint-Omer:
Do you agree that solidarity at local level will be more important than ever to help communities recover from the Covid crisis?

Mayor Decoster replies:
The Covid-19 crisis has created new challenges, at all levels. But clearly, the local level will be where it will be the easiest way to identify those new challenges (such as the rise of individualism, the distrust of politics or scientific expertise). As I mentioned earlier, social cohesion will be at stake and therefore we will have to create new ways of bringing people together. Solidarity at the local level will be key in solving many of the challenges created by the crises. It means mayors should be open to new forms of solidarity, depending less on financial donations, giving more value to volunteers. It also means new ways of dialogue between mayors and national governments, to ensure that solidarity at local level will be complemented by measures taken at national level.

Question by Alice F., France:
You have been Mayor of Saint-Omer since 2014. During your years in office what difference, do you think, you have made to your fellow citizens?

Mayor Decoster replies:
I started my term as Mayor in 2014 with a lot of local experience (having joined the city council in 1997) but also regional (I was elected member of the Regional Council in 2010) and national experience (having worked for the national government as an advisor to a few ministers). Thanks to this experience and many written contributions received for our manifesto, I knew clearly what direction I wanted to propose. This has created quick and successful changes, encouraging me to associate more directly and more regularly citizens to the management of our collective challenges. Today, after 7 years of transformation, I guess it is well recognized among my fellow citizens but also far beyond our town that living in Saint-Omer is both a joy and an opportunity. More people say it, and just as importantly, more people know it!