‘This village is extraordinary!’ – that’s a sentence Dany Karcher has heard many times from colleagues and visitors. He, the mayor of Kolbsheim, has no doubt as to what makes this place so special – ‘it’s the people, the community, who never fail to show solidarity, humanity, and – let’s dare to use that word – fraternity’.
Welcome to Kolbsheim, a village in Alsace, in the east of France, whose 920 inhabitants have taken up the challenge of living together, with each other and for each other, with some very positive results.
Back in 2013, Dany was among the very first mayors in France to launch the so-called Journée citoyenne (active citizenship day) initiative, which was later adopted by many other towns and villages across the country. Every spring, the people of the village come together for a day and devote some of their time and energy to painting, gardening, and other DIY works that benefit the entire community.
‘What if we stopped waiting for the village council to do things for us and asked ourselves what it is that we can do for the village and for each other instead, even if just for a day?’ – that, in the mayor’s words, is the idea behind the initiative. With this question in mind, a group of eight people recently turned an abandoned field into a vegetable garden. Each family plants something, and everyone gets to share the crops. And the garden is also a nice excuse to spend time together and have a drink in good company.
There are Catholics and Protestants here, as in the rest of Alsace.
In Kolbsheim, though, the two groups share the same church. During a recent journée citoyenne, they joined forces for some much needed maintenance works in the sacristy. Over the years, the façade of the town hall and that of the community centre have been repainted, and a group of parents has set up a small park for families with handmade playground equipment. Street lighting was also improved when inhabitants repainted some lampposts and replaced traditional light bulbs with LED lamps.
These are all remarkable results, but the main aim of the initiative is to create an opportunity for people to get together and get to know each other better. ‘Some people arrive in the morning and they don’t know anyone, and then they leave at the end of the day and they’ve got a whole new group of friends’ – the mayor explains – ‘I’m glad to see people who used to hardly say hello to one another stop and chat now when they meet at the bakery’.
The same rationale, though on a larger scale, has inspired the cultural partnership between Kolbsheim and a village of former East Germany. When the partnership was inaugurated, in the early Nineties, Mr. Karcher was among its youngest participants. That is why this project is very near and dear to his heart. In 2012, under his leadership, a group of young people from the two villages symbolically renewed the partnership by moving the wooden structure of a typical Alsatian house from France to Germany. Some of the young people who took part in the project still keep in touch, and in 2012 Kolbsheim won the ‘Prix de la ville euro-citoyenne’, a prize awarded to outstanding youth partnership initiatives in Europe.
There are plans to further strengthen the ties between the two villages by launching a partnership between primary schools. An exchange is already underway, and the children’s letters and drawings cross the border in both directions. The mayor, however, hopes that more can be done in the future. In his opinion, a united Europe must be lived before it is declared. And everyday life initiatives such as these contribute more to peace in Europe than any treaty ever will.
The day we talk on Skype, Dany is busy writing his speech for the 14th July celebrations. The national holiday is a time to reflect on the meaning of the republican motto, ‘freedom, equality, fraternity’.
That is why the motto was at the centre of his speech. ‘Today, we work hard to implement freedom and equality, but we leave fraternity aside. The concept has taken on a religious connotation and people feel like it’s a distant idea. Whereas I believe that if we concentrated on putting fraternity into action first, the rest would follow, it would come as a result’.
A university professor now in his third term as mayor, Dany Karcher got involved in politics sixteen years ago, almost by accident, when a friend insisted that he run in the local election and his fellow citizens decided to trust him. I asked him what advice he could give young people who want to serve their communities through politics, but he said he had none.
Experience is the best teacher, he said. But one thing is crucial: ‘If you want to do this job, you have to love people. If you don’t love people, you shouldn’t think about it’. Patience, too, is fundamental, and so is the capacity to work on the little things day after day, rather than seek great achievements.