There is nothing more guaranteed to bring out all the dark, negative, cunning traits of the French than the municipal elections.

Every six years he or she gets to dust off ancient grievances, settle centuries-old scores nursed and kept warm through the generations, and indulge in the glorious pastime of slandering friend and foe.

With 36,681 communes up for grabs this month the country is positively hoaching with backbiting and tittle-tattle.

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A French friend of mine, a normally sensible man who usually stays aloof from village feuds, listened as I told him who I'd heard was standing, unopposed, for mayor in a nearby village.

"He won't be unopposed because we won't allow it."

The "we", it turned out, was a loose collection of local worthies, none of them actually from that village.

They had visited the present maire, now in his seventies and desperate to retire, and told him it was his duty to stand again to prevent Monsieur X from winning.

X, to the best of my knowledge, is a hard- working family man who has some good plans for revitalising the slumbering village.

He has cultivated the handful of expats in the parish, even including two of them on the list of councillors every would-be mayor must produce.

My friend practically spat as I said this: "He and his whole family are crooks. Always have been, always will be.

"The commune's money will go straight into his back pocket. The Xs only look after themselves. It's always a case of 'what's in it for me?' with them."

One could say that for a lot of France's mayors, particularly in the rural backwaters.

Their power is such that they can, and often do, behave more like despots. Work in the area is given to cousins or uncles; building plots are suddenly available and houses waved through to friends and relatives; life can be made impossible for those deemed to have offended in some way.

In one village the mayor, who has held the job for more than 30 years, was incensed to discover he was being opposed. Two of those on the list work in local government. They were visited by the mayor and warned that unless they took their names off, they'd be fired. They did because they knew it was no idle threat.

Such tales shock only the incomers. The French simply shrug and accept the power these men and women have over them, being careful not to attract attention while making sure of giving a fine New Year present.

The communes and their powers were essentially a revolutionary creation dating back to 1789. Like many things in France, when functionaries are involved the workings have become cumbersome and overburdened.

For France's 36,681 communes, Germany has 12,000 and Italy and Spain just over 8000 each.

My commune, the smallest in the region, will return eight councillors and one mayor. God knows what they do at their meetings, as there is little sign of any improving works and never has been.

To further complicate matters, the voter can cross out any names he doesn't fancy on the list and can add names without even asking the permission of those he's added. Or he can take names off the other list, or lists, and switch them to the list he likes most.

Then each individual's votes are added to announce the final line-up. The mayor is supposed to be agreed between them at this point but there are no surprises, shall we say, as it's already been well divvied up. Although most lists favour the three main parties, it is not a requirement to belong to any. Traditionally though, the municipals are used to send signals to government.

The way the Front National representatives have been touring La France Profonde these past few weeks there can be little doubt what message will be sent.

Discussing all this with a friend who lives in the village where Monsieur X is a candidate, I told him that his mayor would not now be retiring.

"He's retired," he said. "We all got a letter from him saying so. He's old and his wife is ill and he wants to spend time with her. There's no chance at all of him standing again."

That conversation was a few weeks ago. The lists are usually published two weeks before election day but can be entered right up until the doors open for the count.

The old mayor, following the visit from those determined to keep the X family out of politics, has now thrown his chapeau back into the ring.

Nobody but my friend knows why and I have sworn him to secrecy to avoid further complications or, more likely, writs for slander; a popular route of complaint here.

With just days to go until the vote there is a scramble to ensure the "right" candidates get in. Families are being reminded of their blood ties, old favours are being called in and careful warnings on future council work are dropped into seemingly casual conversations.

Of course no candidate has, or will, knock on my door. We don't have opposition here. The mayor prefers it that way.