Voice of Authority
My new home, Roussillon, a picturesque village deep in the South of France, has a town hall run by an extrovert mayor, a church (but no permanent priest), a grocer, a busy baker, a garage and petrol station, a newsagent, a concert hall, a pharmacist, several cafés and restaurants, a hairdresser, a classy hotel, a post office, a single post woman in her little yellow car, and a whole string of souvenir shops and galleries catering to the many tourists who land from outer space in season. No bank, no cinema and, thank goodness, no supermarket. And somewhere among the pretty buildings, approximately one thousand two hundred residents, some permanent, many here for the summer months only. So, how many police officers? What would be your guess?
The answer is one.
Patricia Barbieri, 53, is the village policewoman, and has been for twelve years, and she knows virtually everyone that lives here and everything that goes on.
In France the police are divided up into two main categories: the national police who operate in most cities and large towns, and the military 'gendarmes' who patrol smaller towns and rural areas. But there is also a third smaller force, the municipal police, answerable to and paid by the mayor in villages like ours, and so it was that when Patricia was on a three-year course at a local police college, she responded to an advert for a policewoman in Roussillon which would allow her to get work experience while she studied. When the course came to an end, Patricia stayed on at the request of the mayor and has been part of the community ever since.
Patricia, like everyone else I meet here, seems to have had several careers in a row, including as a secretary to a wine merchant and working in an accountant's office. Understandably, stuck amongst dusty ledgers, she says she felt the need for fresh air, and so the police beckoned. And it's this latest incarnation which she claims to have relished the most.
Admittedly, it's a job which is far from the screaming sirens and flashing lights of police life in Paris or NYPD. We're a genteel well-behaved lot, generally. The main and most enjoyable duties are supervising the kids leaving the local primary school each day, drawing maps to help lost tourists, delivering the village magazine to every house, answering email queries from her desk in the town hall and generally making sure everything is running smoothly in the village.
But that's not to say the job has no downsides. For a start, there's the workload. There should be at least one other police officer here: the national target is 1 officer per 1000 inhabitants. But as in so many areas, the police force nationwide is required to do more and more with fewer and fewer resources. That affects even policy at village level, hence the economising on womanpower. However, unlike many of her colleagues elsewhere in the country, Patricia is at least supplied with a computer and doesn't have to bring her own to work every day.
The most depressing part of the job is having to dole out parking fines and tickets. If you park in the wrong place, you'll pay 11 Euros (Tk 1000), but if you end up blocking the traffic it'll be 35 Euros (Tk 3300). Whatever you do, don't park on a disabled space as that little mistake will cost you 135 Euros (Tk 13000!). Patricia, who sees her work more as serving the community than meting out punishments, is never particularly happy in this role, but then again if you live in a small place with narrow and winding streets, you'll soon understand why they need to be kept clear. You end up wondering how many transgressions there would be if there was no-one here to enforce the law, and how a police-less village might settle disputes. Not easily, I suspect, so it's a key role she plays.
Otherwise, there are not too many examples of misbehaviour. She can recall only one time when tempers overheated one early evening in a local bar, and she had to step in physically between the men. Trained in karate,
admittedly over 20 years ago, and qualified to use a truncheon, she is also allowed to carry an arm, but this is something she is extremely reluctant to do, seeing it as more of a liability than a useful tool. If things really get out of hand, the gendarmes in the town half an hour away can be called.
In her daily dealings she has to rely less on physical force than natural authority. But this she has in abundance, thanks as much to presence and self-belief as to the uniform she wears. The other day I was cycling through what turned out (to my surprise, honest,) to be a pedestrianised part of the village, when I heard a voice behind me boom out “Young man! On foot, please!” It was one of those voices which simply expects to be obeyed. I hopped off pretty sharpish, not sure whether to be flattered by the “Young man” part or embarrassed by the instruction to dismount.
Beyond these regular duties there are occasionally random incidents. Like the time a local winegrower called to complain there was a stray donkey in his vineyard. And as you probably know if you've ever spent time with one, donkeys are not the most amenable creatures. Not the kind of problem you or I are often called on to face, but when you're the policewoman, then it falls to you. The solution? (And here's where her Paris or New York colleagues might have scratched their heads in puzzlement). Their collective toughness would be no substitute for the intricate network Patricia has built up, which enabled her to call another farmer with an older donkey with enough authority to entice the stubborn younger animal away. Of course…
Or the day when a tourist strayed too near the edge of one of the sheer cliffs around the village, and fell over 50 metres, avoiding death but ending up paralysed for life. Someone has to step in and deal with the tragedy, call the hospital, break the news to the family.
Or in the rare snowfall last winter when an elderly couple on a remote farm called for help. People in the scattered farms sometimes only see the postwoman for days. They hadn't eaten for several hours, and Patricia was able to mobilise some people from the community to take hot food round.
She is convinced this is a job best handled by a woman, and indeed the original advert specifically requested this. “Women have more of a sixth sense”, she says “ and are better able to understand people's problems”. When a tourist has been pickpocketed, losing personal items or photos, or a schoolchild has fallen, she is sure that women are better at handling the distress caused.
It's a job which is nominally from 8.30 till 12 and 2 till 6 five days a week. No evening shifts, but then again the village virtually shuts down at night anyway, the streets bathed in amber light, the buildings floodlit, hardly a shadow moving.
But in reality as a policewoman she is always on duty, so don't come here to rob the post office at 6.30. Her mobile is wired up to the alarm systems across the village, including the town hall, so if there's a break-in at midnight, she has to see to it while the rest of us turn over in our sleep.
Another 7 years to retirement, but that is not something she is longing for. For now Patricia quite content to be law-enforcer, guide, counsellor, resource and guardian angel of the community.
(R) thedailystar.net 2009