As the regional map of France is redrawn, Kate McNally takes a look at what has changed and sheds some light on the implications of the restructure
France is famed for its love of red tape wound tightly around anything from starting a business to registering a car, and all administered by layer upon layer of public officialdom. For many, especially for those used to something a little simpler, it is the carbuncle on an otherwise beautiful specimen. But could there finally be light at the end of the tunnel?
Following more than 25 years of animated debate among elected officials and fonctionnaires (civil servants) about territorial reform, the country has finally wielded a heavier hammer (or should that be glue?) by joining together clusters of regions to reduce their number from 22 to 13 in a process dubbed ‘ le big bang des régions’ by the French media.
The principal aims of redrawing the map of France, according to the French government, are to reduce waste in public services, to
Dijon, capital of the Bourgogne– Franche-Comté region provide a ‘who does what’ clarity when it comes to administration thus providing a better response to citizens’ needs, and to give the regions greater powers to drive forward muchneeded economic growth.
So what exactly has changed and why?
A LITTLE BACKGROUND: THE SO-CALLED ‘MILLE-FEUILLE’ ADMINISTRATION
Beneath national governance, France has several additional levels of public administration – the principal being the local communes (similar to a local parish in the UK) run by the mairie; the ‘ intercommunalités’, effectively a small cluster of communes known as a communauté de commune or a communauté d’agglomération (borough or district); the départements (county) and the régions. The generic French term for this type of grouping within a defined geographic area is a collectivité térritoriale. The principal problem of this structure in France, with its thousands of communes (36,700 to be exact, some with very few inhabitants in rural areas), 2,600 inter-communal groupings, 101 départements and previously 22 regions, is that it is too fragmented and overlapping. Add into the administrative equation all number of associated syndicates and EPCIs – établissement public de coopération intercommunale – at various levels, set up separately to deliver certain services or provisions, and the layers are even more intricately interwoven. ( There has also been growing concern that these local EPCIs are taking up more and more local expenditure without any real public scrutiny.) The result, according to those leading the changes, is waste, duplication and a lack of transparency leading to inefficient use of public money and a confused provision of public services.
RING THE CHANGES
So, subsequent governments have for a long time now recognised the need for territorial reform – to make the public sector in France more dynamic, more responsive, less wasteful and better adapted to the geography of the modern economy.
The key element of the change in France is greater decentralisation. Although reducing the number of regions may seem counter to this aim, it is in fact the pivotal action to empowering the regions. By reducing their number and at the same time devolving power to local levels on more everyday issues, the government aims to free up the regions to focus on the bigger picture, notably economic development. And, by at the same time significantly increasing their size, the argument is they now have greater clout, in particular on the international stage, to attract investors.
Another important change is greater