Loire-Atlantique is home to around 1.3 million residents and contains the city of Nantes, which many people still consider to be Brittany’s true capital.
It was separated from the Brittany region by order of the wartime Vichy government in 1941, a decision which still causes much dismay to this day.
France has a total of 101 administrative areas, known as departments, five of which are overseas. The departments, most of which were created in the 1789 French revolution, are then organized to sit within 26 regions.
Following the 1941 decree, the Loire-Atlantique department was shunted from Brittany into the Pays de la Loire region.
While many still see the area as part of Brittany, a campaign for the department to be officially situated within the region has been gaining ground over recent years.
An important vote in the French parliament on Wednesday evening made way for a change to the law that could make the reattachment a reality.
Parliamentarians voted to allow residents of a department to hold a referendum without the agreement of other residents of that region.
The change would mean Loire-Atlantique residents could go ahead with a vote without the approval of the other 2.2 million inhabitants of the Pays de la Loire.
The north-west region of Brittany has a long-standing tradition of independence. It was once a kingdom and was formally united with France in 1532. It now contains four departments and has a population of 4.4 million. The region has two local languages, Breton and Gallo.
Local politicians had mixed views about the proposed changes. The president of the Pays de la Loire region, where Loire-Atlantique currently sits, said he was “surprised” by the vote.
“This amendment is contrary to the democratic ideal,” said Jacques Auxiette, reported regional newspaper Ouest France.
“How can we modify the boundaries of a territory without asking the opinion of the people who live there?”
Socialist MP and mayor of Nantes, Jean-Marc Ayrault, agreed. “A consultation reserved to the Brittany region and just Loire-Atlantique doesn’t respect the residents of the other departments in the Pays de la Loire region,” he said.
A close advisor to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, Franck Louvrier, said he was pleased by the draft amendment.
Declaring himself “decidedly favourable” to the idea of putting the area back into Brittany, he welcomed this “advance which I believe to be democratic.”
The draft text will now go to the parliament’s upper house, the Senate, for approval.