Along the French-Swiss border lies a small republic with its own customs office, president, and postage stamp.
Not a single government in the world recognizes the state.
"WELCOME TO THE REPUBLIC OF SAUGEAIS," read official-looking signs in several villages that do not appear on road maps. Saugeais is an entirely self-declared entity, and has been so since its establishment in 1947. Its diminutive customs office and the visas it issues to visitors are charming but not enforceable: They’re entirely for show.
The republic began as a joke when a regional prefect arrived in the abbey town of Montbenoît for a visit and his hotelier, Georges Pourchet, jokingly inquired whether the guest had a passport for Saugeais, the folk name of the valley communities in the area. The official admitted that he didn't, then took the joke a step further, naming his host President of the Free Republic of Saugeais. Pourchet embraced the idea, as did the residents of Montbenoît and the ten surrounding farm towns.
Despite the element of make-believe, Saugeais is also very real. Insulated throughout the centuries by blankets of snow in winter and thick forests of spruce and pine, the Jura mountain towns have a tight-knit history that traces its roots to the 12th century, when they formed around the Montbenoit abbey, whose monks cultivated the land.
The Catholic Church has always exerted a strong influence around here, and the people of Saugeais have a reputation for being more conservative than their down-valley neighbors. For hundreds of years, they enforced the doctrine of mortemain, or inalienable ownership, whereby any sons who left home were effectively disinherited, which only further cemented the community’s insularity.
Moreover, their border position has frequently resulted in citizens being embroiled in European conflicts, most traumatically in 1637, when the Saugeais were massacred by the Swedish.
The Saugeais "national" anthem boasts that this region's hills have spawned France's strongest fighting men. One line, "No vâdran mie qu'lez âtret dzens," translates as, "We're worth more than others." The current president, — Georgette Bertin-Pourchet, daughter of the founder of Saugeais, — is in her late seventies, and childless, and so has no evident successor. But Saugeais endears itself to visitors not only through its tongue-in-cheek administrative rituals but also its fine Comté cheese and charcuterie, which artisanal makers dry in the mountain air.
Photos by Léo Delafontaine.