In the Saugeais valley, there’s a tiny micronation with its own flag. It’s not recognised by the French state, but that hasn’t stopped locals from electing their own president.

It was 15:00, and Madame Georgette Bertin-Pourchet, president of the Republic of Le Saugeais, was serving tea in her sitting room in the Haut-Doubs region in eastern France. Suddenly, the large clock in the corner ground into action, marking the hour not with traditional chimes, but a full version of the tiny micronation’s rousing national anthem.

Does Emmanuel Macron have a clock that plays La Marseillaise on the hour, every hour, I wondered? Or, for that matter, own a cushion with his face on it and an emergency “president” sash that he carries with him at all times? If not, he’s missing a trick, and could perhaps learn a thing or two if he deigned to visit his 85-year-old counterpart. But despite being in power for almost three years, the French leader has not yet had the courtesy to meet Madame la Présidente – the second female leader of this “country”, who rules over just 128 sq km.

Perhaps Macron does not know of the “joke” that has lasted since 1947, when a visiting official to the Saugeais – a wooded valley running alongside the Swiss border ­– first declared it a republic. “My father Georges ran a restaurant next to the abbey in the village of Montbenoît,” Bertin-Pourchet recalled. “One day he was cooking lunch for some officials. When the leader of the Doubs region, Louis Ottaviani, arrived, my father, who was a bit of a joker, asked, ‘Do you have a permit to come into the territory of Le Saugeais?’.”

“Louis also liked a laugh, and after asking my father about the history of Le Saugeais, replied, ‘Well, it sounds like a republic, and a republic needs a president, and therefore I name you the President of the Republic of Le Saugeais!’.”

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And thus, the Pourchet dynasty was born. Georges became president and “ruled” over his domain of 11 villages and a few thousand inhabitants until his death in 1968. The joke could have died out at that point, but for the determination of the priest of the Abbey of Montbenoît and the village mayor, who, in May 1972, told Georgette’s mother, Gabrielle, that the citizens of the republic, the Saugets, had elected her president – using an applause meter.

The origins of the republic might lie in a jest, but the history of this remote corner of France began 1,000 years ago when the valley, which sits at a high altitude of around 1,000m, was an inhospitable region, heavily wooded and frequently impassable due to heavy snowfall. The only inhabitants were medieval hermits – religious fanatics who deliberately sought solitude. One of whom, Benoît, started a hermitage that eventually became the Abbey of Montbenoît.

In 1150, the area was gifted to the bishop of nearby Besançon by the Sire of Joux, a local nobleman. Saint Augustin monks from the Valais region of Switzerland and a handful of workers from the neighbouring Savoie area in France started thinning out the thick forests of spruce and pine. “They made it habitable, built the abbey and the 11 villages grew up around it,” Bertin-Pourchet said.

I always tell people the Republic of Le Saugeais is situated between Pontarlier and Morteau, and Switzerland and France

Thanks to its position on the border, and its natural geographic limitations – the river Doubs and a high line of hills beyond clearly marks the area off from Switzerland – the area soon developed its own personality, distinct even from those two towns that sit at either end of the valley. Harsh weather meant that inhabitants had to be self-reliant, and many of the current residents are descended from the original hardy Savoie settlers, with the same surnames echoing down the generations. “I always tell people the Republic of Le Saugeais is situated between [the French towns of] Pontarlier and Morteau, and Switzerland and France,” Bertin-Pourchet said, laughing.

A massacre at the hands of the Swedes in 1637 further cemented local fortitude – and the abbey still bears the scars, with some of its beautiful carvings hacked away during the attack.

The area had its own patois – a version of the French, Swiss and Italian Alpine language Arpitan – which has since died out, and in 1910, a local canon, Joseph Bobillier, who was born in Montbenoît, wrote a humorous hymn in the local dialect to the accompaniment of music by composer Théodore Botrel. This was later adopted as the republic’s national anthem. “Qu’i n’y a ran d’té qu’ notrou Sadjet/Que stet qu’en sont peuillant se r’crerre/On ptet pô pleu qu’ s’l’érant français!” reads the end of the first verse – “To be Saugeais means you can believe you’re a little bit more than just French.” And woe betide any Swedes who dare return, as the hymn reveals they will be “roasted”!

Gabrielle certainly embodied the determined spirit of her ancestors. She dedicated 33 years of her life to putting Le Saugeais on the map and rescuing her beloved abbey from ruin by attracting locals and tourists to fundraising fairs held in the village to cover the cost of renovations. She died at the age of 99 while still manning the post. “My mother was responsible for most of the grand projects,” Bertin-Pourchet said.

To be Saugeais means you can believe you’re a little bit more than just French

One of these was the coat of arms, which was designed in 1973 and depicted a staff for the abbey, a helmet for the Sire of Joux, a snowy fir tree, and a river to represent the meandering Doubs that runs through the Saugeais valley. A flag, based on the old colours of the region of Franche-Comté, which is made up of the departments of Doubs, Jura, Haute-Saône and the Territoire de Belfort, was designed in 1981, followed by a postal stamp in 1987, while visitors are given a signed “laissez-passer” – a Presidential permit – to enter the area.

After Gabrielle’s death in 2005, her daughter was reluctant to take on the presidency. “I swore to myself I’d never do it,” Bertin-Pourchet said. “I used to have a go at her, saying, ‘We never have any family lunches or dinners because you’re always out doing things.’.” But the Saugeais government – consisting of a prime minister, secretary-general, two customs officers and ambassadors – had other ideas. “After she died, they asked me to take on the role. For six months I resisted,” Bertin-Pourchet said. “They told me, ‘You’ve been unanimously elected.’ I said to them, ‘I haven’t seen any election results!’ But they carried on begging me to do it.”

After six months, she relented. “I was on my own. If my husband Léon had been alive, he never would have wanted me to take it over – he’d been in the military and he wouldn’t have been able to put up with me being president. And it would have been the same if I’d had children. I won’t call it fate, but I’d ended up alone.”

Now, despite her advancing years, Bertin-Pourchet is as active as ever. Her bookshelves are weighed down with records of the Citizens of Honour, who are elected every year on the first Sunday of October when the republic holds its national day to celebrate those who support the nation. She has folder after folder of memorabilia, with press cuttings of her with European nobles, at the Élysée Palace and opening local businesses. While the republic is not officially recognised by France, or other nations, former presidents, especially Nicolas Sarkozy, respected her role, inviting Bertin-Pourchet to official functions at the Élysée Palace three times when locals from Le Saugeais were being honoured. There’s a box of mail stuffed full of invitations she needs to reply to. It’s a full-time job, and it’s no wonder Bertin-Pourchet and members of the government need to be retired to do it.

After tea, we headed to the abbey to meet her prime minister, Simon Marguet, and her official driver, who refused to give his name. “Just call me ‘The Chauffeur’,” he joked, with a twinkle in his eye. Thanks to the dedication of Gabrielle and her daughter, the abbey has been restored and is now the most prominent tourist attraction in the republic, with a small museum dedicated to the history of Le Saugeais, an atmospheric cloister and a crypt – where, until the 1950s, monks were laid to rest dressed in their habits.

Even on a cold February afternoon, the abbey was full of tourists who were excited to find themselves in the company of the president. When a party of schoolchildren arrived, Bertin-Pourchet sprang into action. “I’ve left my emergency speech in the car,” she said, rushing off to find it. On her return, she dug around in her handbag for her presidential sash. “I always have a spare one with me, for moments like this,” she said.

I’d like to find a successor now. No-one wants to take my place.

Visitors not lucky enough to meet her in person need not be disappointed. At the Tuyé Du Papy Gaby, a traditional smokehouse in Gilley, the valley’s “economic capital” with a population of 1,615, a model of Georgette moves and tells visitors about the history of the region. There’s also a mock customs, with a barrier and a life-size model of one of the republic’s customs officers, which stares icily at any would-be smugglers. On occasion, one of the real officers arrives to stop tourists and hand out permits.

Owner Pascal Nicolet has fully embraced both the spirit of the republic and its marketing opportunities, telling me tourists flock to the shop to see the models, and try the local specialities of saucisse de Morteau (a smoked sausage) and smoked ham. I asked him whether he feels more French or Sauget. “I share,” he laughed. “I take the advantages of both!”

But after 73 years of glorious existence, the republic is facing something of a crisis. For the past couple of years, Bertin-Pourchet has been dropping heavy hints to her prime minister that she’s ready to retire. “I’m getting tired,” she said. “I’d like to find a successor now. No-one wants to take my place. It’s a shame.”

Marguet might seem the natural choice – he believes strongly in “protecting the folklore of the republic”, but is already busy with family and his own official duties. Since Bertin-Pourchet has no children, the presidency will have to pass out of the Pourchet family for the first time. There’s a line in the official Saugeais guide to area, which illustrates how hard the search for a new president will be.

“[Georgette] accepted that being president is more than being part of folklore or simply an honorary role… she’s poured all her heart into it, made her own mark and made sure that the republic is always the symbol of the Sauget soul,” it reads.

Without spending a day in the company of the president, it could be easy to dismiss the republic as an inventive piece of branding designed to attract tourists. It might have started as a joke among friends, but for Bertin-Pourchet and her officials, it’s a passion project that involves protecting the history and traditions of a proud and ancient region. Now, the survival of the Republic of Le Saugeais is at stake – and it’s time for one of her citizens to step up.

Our Unique World is a BBC Travel series that celebrates what makes us different and distinctive by exploring offbeat subcultures and obscure communities around the globe.

The history of the Tuyé smokehouses

The area is famous for its different types of smoked sausage. In order to preserve their meat throughout winter, the Saugets built tuyés, or chimneys, in the centre of their farmhouses. These could be up to 15m tall, and some can still be seen in houses in the area today.

With the advent of central heating and refrigeration, most chimneys fell into disuse and families stopped making their own sausages. The founder of Tuyé du Papy Gaby, Gabriel Marguet, was a pork butcher who built his own vast 18m chimney in the 1970s so he could continue production and preserve the local tradition.

The pigs are fed whey, a by-product of the local Comté cheese-making production, and their meat is mixed with a secret blend of herbs and spices. The famous saucisse de Morteau is smoked for at least 48 hours, while hams are hung for up to a year.

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