Now a Monaco in the Mountains
Laàs, a village in the Béarn, hopes to become the Monaco of the Mountains — a haven of wealth and fortune on the ski slopes, in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques to be exact.
(Read more online French News here)
Over the summer Jacques Pedehontaà (53) Mayor of Laàs, presently home to just 120 souls, wrote to President Nicolas Sarkozy inviting him to become the joint Prince of the Principality of Laàs a Mayoral initiative to turn his hamlet into a thriving principality mirroring Mediterranean Monaco’s success.
While he did not spell it out commenters on a on-line newspaper article reporting the move soon did it for him, suggesting that the range of attractions attached to such a move could include printing the Laàs as the principality’s own currency, abolishing income tax, erecting customs posts, introducing visas and residence permits to control migration, and exiting Schengenland (the barrier-free arrangements in the EU that allow EU nationals to move around without passports or permits).
However a more gourmand commenter warned of nefarious culinary consequences in any move to Laàs independence — the impact on the quality of local soup – “La garbure Béarnaise est faite avec l’incontournable haricot Tarbais” (Béarnaise soup, as crafted in Laàs, “depends on the quality of beans from Tarbes” he noted), the implication being that supplies could dry up unless a customs union were created between the would-be principality and other Béarnaise towns.
Jacques Pedehontaà has never been shy about coming forward with ideas to project Laàs into the national media. A few years ago his council passed a resolution welcoming Brigitte Bardot as an honorary resident and offering her special treatment to move to Laàs. The actress was at the time having a row with Saint-Tropez where she lives.
In another nationally recognised initiative he arranged for the restoration of the local church with the help of hundreds of Scouts from across France.
Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the head of state has yet to respond to the Mayor’s latest coup de pub — but then his political agenda is rather full at the moment with the country preparing for presidential (April 22/May 5 2012) and parliamentary elections in 2012.
However Mayor Pedehontaà is a determined man from a region of the country noted for its many determined men — regionalists, independistas, groups fighting for what others may consider lost causes but defended with fire and fervour by spirited locals.
On Facebook for instance one can find the pages of “Bearn Libre : Parti Independantiste Béarnais while on the campaigning site causes.com the independence group LE BEARN INDEPENDENT fights under the slogan: Du foin pour nos vaches! (fodder for our cows) and has drawn support from 740 others on the site.
So has his call to turn Laàs into the Monaco of the South-West stirred the jet-set into action?
Mayor Jacques Pedehontaà proffers an enigmatic smile and admits that his move for a principality might be a “little provocative. But I have already had more than 2000 emails in support. My call has clearly generated a wave of sympathy across France, ” he said.
And in Laàs itself? Sabine Bernède of La Depeche reports: “Marie, an octogenarian, smilingly asks, “Monaco, here? ” then nods her head. “It does make you think,” says Marie-Pierre, who works at the Auberge de la Fontaine. While for his part local wood turner, Jean-Pierre Biensan thought the idea “amusing”.
Laàs, a beautiful, flower-bedecked village, sits in the middle of cornfields and tobacco which have been copiously watered this summer. Its main problem is that many of its houses are shuttered and where once there were many voices today there is much silence.
While the Mayor is not necessarily seeking to replace this with congestion and gasoline fumes, he sees no reason why a tax-free principality offering a haven of duty free shopping and similar Monaco-style attractions is not a good idea for reviving the village.
Mayor Pedehontaà also has a more serious agenda — the new local government reform act — has in his view emasculated the power of the 36 000 local mayors across the country. “This summer, I saw my fellow mayors resigned to their fate. Yet for us to implement this reform as presently set out will see all the skills of local maries disappear! And the mayors are the pillars of democracy,” Jacques Pedehontaà added.
The Mayor also opposes what he calls centrist “financial anarchy” (the new law provides for more centralisation of service provision at local and regional level and in turn involves more centralist control of expenditure) which the Mayor claims “destroys jobs”.
He may not yet have the support of the head of state but Jacques Pedehontaà has some grassroots backing and at least one prime asset: the Château de Laàs in Béarn
Between Sauveterre de Béarn and Navarrenx, on the banks of the Gave d’Oleron, and surrounded by beautiful gardens, the Château de Laàs sits in a 12 hectare estate and houses one of the finest collections of decorative arts in the Aquitaine. The Château dates from 1405 and was bought in 1946 by Louis Serbat, heir to a industrial fortune. Today it house his priceless collection of paintings, drawings, prints and furniture, the Aubusson tapestries, paintings by Vigee-Lebrun, Breughel, Rubens, Fragonard, porcelain and pottery.
Béarn is one of the traditional provinces of France, located in the Pyrenees in southwest France. Along with the three Basque provinces of Soule, Lower Navarre, and Labourd, the principality of Bidache, as well as small parts of Gascony, it forms the département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques (64). The capitals of Bearn were Morlaàs (starting ca. 1100), Orthez (starting second half of 13th century), then Pau (beginning in the mid 15th century).
The name Béarn comes from Beneharnum, a city destroyed by Vikings by 840.
Today, the mainstays of the Béarn area are petroleum, the aerospace industry through the helicopter manufacturer Turbomeca, tourism and agriculture. Pau was the birthplace of Elf Aquitaine, which is now part of Total. In Alexandre Dumas’s The Three Musketeers series, the protagonist d’Artagnan was from Béarn
Story: Ken Pottinger