L'autre information du Nord – Pas-de-Calais

Along our vanished borders (10/20): 24 hours at Saugeais, the zany border republic

DailyNord en anglais Par | 27 mai 2013

One of the rare appointments made during our voyage along our vanished borders. ‘Cos we didn’t want to miss out on this. A strange border republic survives at the French-Swiss border. Almost independent. Its name? The Republic of Saugeais. A special day in the life of a reporter.


Before we met the Prime Minister of Saugeais and his customs officer, it was time for the official photograph with Madame President. Photo: Stéphane Dubromel.

9h55. The two journalists who had spent the night in an excellent Formule 1 hotel make their way to the President of the Republic of Saugeais’ residence, at Pontarlier. Georgette Bertin-Pourchet, 78 years old, opens the door and welcomes us into her living room. On the wall, a very official looking portrait of her mother as President. On one of the armchairs, our interlocutor in an equally official pose on a cushion. Family Republic? « I never asked to be President: I didn’t even want to be. When my mother died, they asked me to succeed her. But I did go from being the President’s chauffeur to being President. A good example of climbing the social ladder! « . The grandfather clock chimes 10h to the tune of the official Saugeais national anthem (that you can hear here).

10h15. After having signed two passes, indispensable for moving freely around Saugeais, a territory of 128 km2 that is composed of 10 local constituencies, the President gives us a brief account of the history of this make-believe Republic. A quip made by her father to the chief constable at the end of the 1940’s, who replied by jokingly naming him President on the spot. A custom upheld ever since. All the media have paid a visit. And Georgette gets her press-book out to prove it. A New Look cutting among the pages. « There, my mother got taken for a ride. Two journalists, just like you, came to do her portrait. They never let on that it was for New Look. We were furious! The President was even scared of coming across a montage of herself when she opened the magazine. Luckily, New Look has morals. Georgette’s mother, already getting on in years, was fully-dressed between two pages of nudes. The heading: « Maddie of the month ». « You’re not from New Look by any chance? »

10h25. The subject evoked at the table is this abnormal and not altogether democratic Presidency. 

Because Georgette’s been elected for life in her familial Republic previously governed by her mother and before that her father. Which doesn’t stop her from actively participating in local grass roots democracy: The President is invited to inaugurate buildings in the region left, right and centre, rubbing shoulders with real aldermen. « The important thing is not to take oneself too seriously: I walk around without an escort. We do all that just to encourage tourism, to put us on the map.« 


Saugeais has its own customs offices and customs officers who like to cruise around and have a laugh with cars stuck in queues. Photo: Stéphane Dubromel.

10h45 : The telephone rings. « I know who that is« . It’s her Prime Minister who’s getting impatient. A little Presidential photo session later, we leave her place of residence at Pontarlier, located outside the Republic of Saugeais (« I had my house built before I took office« ) to arrive at Montbenoît, the official capital of the French-Swiss border Republic (our justification for passing through on our road movie as you’ve guessed).

11h15 : At Montbenoît, after having only kept up with great difficulty with the President who is oblivious to speed limits out of town (« but I slow down in villages, I’ve already been done for speeding »), we stop in front of a big farm…and a customs checkpoint. Welcome to the Republic of Saugeais. Manning the checkpoint: two customs officers who look like they’ve passed retirement age and an important looking man, in charge of operations: Jean-Marie Nicot, Prime Minister of Saugeais since 1990. Who starts to tap his watch: the fetish of the day. When it’s time, it’s time. First photo session with the ‘national’ flags at the side of the road. Drivers hoot, delighted. For all intensive purposes, the local custom amuses… the locals. Better than « We help the tourist coaches to park up for 50 Euros » or « The customs officers search and scare people! » Once, the pretend customs officers stopped a sub prefect who had just taken up his new position. Who had no sense of humour: he did a u-turn, furious, or so says the legend.

12h: So here we are a few kilometres from Montbenoit, on a road that runs along a forest and a field. « Stop« , Jean-Marie commands. The customs shack, there, you see it? We see it. A tumbled-down cabin that symbolises the real border. « But the meadow makes for a beautiful backdrop, no, in this spectacular scenery? True, eh?  » The man with the camera has understood that it’s best not to contradict this Prime Minister, with his authoritarian penchant: « True« . « You see, me, I solve the problem by putting it in its right context. » While the Prime Minister stops cars trying to drive by, the photo session can begin. Georgette poses between her two customs officers. The motorists quickly get out of their vehicles to observe the scene. Flashes go off from all directions. « I’ve never heard this story before, it’s excellent » confides a holidaymaker. The President takes advantage of a lull to pick a bouquet of flowers. Jean-Marie Nicot taps his watch.


Before finding our way to Loulou's, a local farmer whose safe houses the Republic's constitution, we have to wait for the President to grant passes at the Abbey of Montbenoît. Photo: Stéphane Dubromel.

12h45: We redescend towards Montbenoît with the President rummaging her baggage. She’s perturbed: she’s forgotten the passes in the car. No problem, someone will go and get them for her. It’s important after all.

13h: And here we are sat down in a restaurant where a family is celebrating the 70th wedding anniversary of a golden-age couple. Around our table: The President, the Prime Minister, a customs officer, Gégé (the other one was otherwise engaged this afternoon), a Ch’ti farmer who had found himself in Saugeais by chance a few years ago and had decided to stay there. And us. We start with an aperitif: two Pontarliers for each of us, the local drink. That’ll keep us going for the rest of the day. Just like the Arbois that is going to add flavour to our salmon-avocado-shrimp hors d’oeuvre and the very tasty guinea fowl to follow. And it’s the chance to learn that Saugeais has a great ambition for 2020: to build up a Premier League football club able to rival the PSG, who at the time of our visit were still not league champions for 2013.

15h: Our report was planned for a whole day. After supper, we make our way to the abbey a few kilometres away. It’s one of the pride and joys of Saugeais. We are given a guided tour. Some tourists – real ones – enter. The President starts to sign passes again without rhyme or reason. Jean-Marie Nicot, in good spirit, makes the sign of the cross. And taps his watch.

16h: Three tourist coaches have joined the convoy. We head for Loulou’s. Loulou, he’s the local retired farmer who shows us his 18 meter high ‘tuyé’*, where he dries his hams and salamis. We make our way to the kitchen immediately afterwards. « What’s your poison« ? the Prime Minister asks me. « Euh… » « Certainly not water in any case! » So it’s going to be another bottle of Arbois while we try to discuss Europe with a Bulgarian tourist. Besides, Gégé the customs officer wants to have his photo taken with her. Forthcoming explanation later.

17h30 : The Prime Minister gives a lecture on longevity, via DailyNord, to his counterpart, Jean-Marc Ayrault, recently named Prime Minister of France, and then decides that he’s not yet ready to grant us leave. So we head off to his dwellings to continue the discussion. « Where are you sleeping tonight? » « At the Formule 1 hotel. » « You must be kidding! » He picks up the phone to reserve us a hotel not far from his place. And adds: « You understand that it’s a pleasure for us to have you here at Montbenoît, in deepest France. Just like Lille. Gégé, the customs officer, who’s still with us, asks « Are they lefties then? »


At Gégé's, who shows us his customs officer photo album. Photo: Stéphane Dubromel.

18h15: After the Prime Minister’s house, we head for Gégé’s, the customs officer, always open to passers-by. And we get to see it for ourselves. During our umpteenth ‘Pont’ (local abbreviation for the Pontarlier drink), a neighbour comes in, puts his pack of butter in the fridge. Waits patiently. And then impatiently. Yep, Gégé has to offer him his little Pont too. But Gégé is otherwise occupied: He’s showing us his customs officer photo album. His targeted objective isn’t to seize drugs or counterfeit products: It’s more about getting his photo taken with members of the fairer sex who he stops. But in a gentlemanly fashion, he assures us! We promise to give him the snapshot with the Bulgarian. Who has in the meantime disappeared en route. Much like the President, who went home in the middle of the afternoon.

18h45 : On the way to the hotel-restaurant, the Prime Minister makes a stop in front of a Vival grocery store. He goes in, has a discussion, and comes out with two Morteau sausages and two bottles of Pontarlier. « It’s for you. Souvenirs of Saugeais at the Republic’s expense! « . No time to ethicize about the press being bought for so little; Jean-Marie taps his watch. We get back in the car.

20h: And here we are once again at a table, this time in the famous hotel-restaurant for the evening.  Except for Gégé who gets up and swaggers over to a family that he has spotted (mother and daughter anyway) and explains to them that he’s a customs officer. His interlocutors don’t know what to make of him. The digestif is served. The Prime Minister taps his watch. But not to go to the local nightclub. At 20h30, the day has drawn to a close and our two accomplices have to get up early tomorrow. And so they part. As for us, no doubt: We’ll remember this extraordinary day in the Republic of Saugeais for a long time to come.

All of our reports “Along our vanished border » reports are available in French

tuyé (French): Similar to the chimney-roof of Oast houses still seen in Kent


 Click here to see the original article in French

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