• France's news in English

'French regions aren't the problem, it's the towns'

Joshua Melvin · 14 Apr 2014, 10:37

Published: 14 Apr 2014 10:37 GMT+02:00

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

During newly named Prime Minster Manuel Valls’s keynote policy speech last week he warned of cuts to the sacred French welfare state, reforms to its reliance on nuclear energy and even changes to the school system.

But it was his announcement of plans to reduce the number of French administrative regions, currently 27, by half that drew the noisiest reaction and prompted the most intense debate.

Strangely this seemingly clear step, previously suggested by President François Hollande back in January, which is intended to make life easier for residents and businesses by cutting down on the country's layers of bureaucracy, is anything but simple. 

The issue of cutting France's regions dates back decades, but despite numerous suggestions and attempts to make it happen, France seems no nearer to having fewer administrative regions, partly due to the divisive row that erupts every time someone in government mentions the words "regions" and "cut" in the same sentence.

In order to understand what everyone gets so upset about The Local talked to two experts on opposite sides of the fence, who tell us whether the reform will actually be do any good.

Sorbonne Professor and public administration expert Gerard Marcou told The Local he’s against the project and explained it's little more than an attempt to make voters think the government is actually trying to fix the economy:

If we really wanted to redraw the boundaries according to economic and demographic criterion that are rational and functional we would not merge existing regions, we’d have to completely re-do everything.

It won't have that big of an impact. There will be fewer elected officials and we'll share certain services and as a result we will eliminate certain jobs. But it will mostly mean the loss of management jobs and not workers who provide the services. In order to maintain a high school you will still need the same number of custodians.

I can only guess why the government is pursuing this now, but I think one reason is that the prime minister is hoping for a boost in public approval by announcing a major restructuring. He wants to show people he has plans to put into place one heck of a reform.

The other explanation is that it is a decoy. This is going to prompt a debate among all the local elected officials and those in the region and the department on the reforms, while meanwhile the government can quietly take on something else, like reducing public spending.

It’s going to be difficult to get this through. The opposition will be highly motivated, and to carry such a complex reform in less than a year seems to me politically and administratively very difficult. They will  have to pass a law and it will be a controversial one.

The real issue is local governments. We have had the same municipal map since the 18th century. Napoleon managed to eliminate the villages with fewer than 300 inhabitants, we went from 44,000 to 38,000. He’s the only one who has managed to get rid of small towns. The place where we could really save some money is by concentrating these small towns.

SEE ALSO: What the future map of France could look like

French administration expert Jean Luc Leboeuf, an outspoken voice on the matter who used to work as a high level civil servant, supports the reduction in regions, but also sees this project heading for turbulence as well:

Everybody agrees that the current regional boundaries aren’t right. You have regions that are too big or too small or regions that have no centre. Everyone agrees on that. The problem is how to redo the divisions.

If we look at this from an economic angle, it's necessary to do away with certain regions. But it’s not enough to simply re-do the regional divisions, they must also be reorganized at the local level. But that is another difficulty.

By merging regions we will bring together major cities with what surrounds them. We can better use these areas. Around France’s main metropolises we can create economic centres that can better take advantage of the local economic strengths, as well as transport and land.”

“Today each region is in charge of its own economic development, so they have somewhat diffused financial means. If they were fewer regions they would have more money, there would be less competition between them and they would be better placed for exportation.

I would like to tell you that by merging regions it will reduce paperwork and bureaucracy in France, but I’m not convinced that’s going to happen. Because when we cannot cut public administration jobs, civil servants have a protected status, we don't address a key issue. We are going generally in the right direction. 

But the problem is how do we deal with the structures that we are going to do away with. For example in Paris, we are in the process of bringing together the towns around Paris. But at the same time, we don’t want to get rid of the old ones, we just changes their names. So we run the risk of carrying out a facade of reform.

The big trouble are the regional elections in 2015. They have already been delayed by a year. If they have people vote and then change the regional boundaries, they are voting for things that might not concern them. It’s illogical.

Joshua Melvin (joshua.melvin@thelocal.com)

Facebook Twitter Google+ reddit

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
France to clear 'Jungle' migrant camp Monday
Migrants will be bussed from the camp to some 300 temporary accommodation centres around France. Photo: Denis Charlet/ AFP

The "Jungle" migrant camp on France's northern coast will be cleared of its residents on Monday before being demolished, authorities said Friday.

How life for expats in France has changed over the years
A market in Eymet, southwestern France. Photo: AFP

Foreigners in France explain how life has changed over the years.

London calling for Calais youths, but only a chosen few
Photo: AFP

Dozens of Calais minors are still hanging their hopes on help from the UK, but not all will be so lucky.

17 different ways to talk about sex in French
Photo: Helga Weber/Flickr

Fancy a quick run with the one-legged man?

Yikes! This is what a rat-infested French jail looks like
Photo: YouTube/France Bleu TV.

This video is not for sufferers of ratophobia (or musophobia as the condition is officially called).

France to allow Baby Jesus in Town Halls this Christmas
Photo: AFP

Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are safe to go on display again this year, it seems.

National Front posts locations of migrants in French town
The National Front courts controversy. Photo: AFP

"Local tax payers have a right to know," says local far-right party chief.

Paris thieves use tear gas to steal €500,000 of watches
Photo: AFP

The thieves pretended to be couriers then threatened staff with tear gas to get the watches.

Bataclan survivor recounts attack in chilling drawings
Photo: BFMTV screengrab

One survivor has recounted the horrific night through illustrations.

Anger among French police grows as Hollande vows talks
French police demonstrate on the Champs Elysées. Photo: AFP

A fourth night of protests shows government efforts to ease anger among French police have been fruitless.

Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Why Toulouse is THE place to be in France right now
Sponsored Article
Last chance to vote absentee in the US elections
Video: New homage to Paris shows the 'real side' of city
The 'most dangerous' animals you can find in France
Sponsored Article
How to vote absentee from abroad in the US elections
Swap London fogs for Paris frogs: France woos the Brits
Anger after presenter kisses woman's breasts on live TV
Is France finally set for a cold winter this year?
IN PICS: The story of the 'ghost Metro stations' of Paris
How to make France's 'most-loved' dish: Magret de Canard
Welcome to the flipside: 'I'm not living the dream in France'
Do the French really still eat frogs' legs?
French 'delicacies' foreigners really find hard to stomach
French are the 'world's most pessimistic' about the future
Why the French should not be gloomy about the future
This is the most useful French lesson you will ever have. How to get angry
Why is there a giant clitoris in a field in southern France?
French pastry wars: Pain au chocolat versus chocolatine
Countdown: The ten dishes the French love the most
Expats or immigrants in France: Is there a difference?
How the French reinvented dozens of English words
The ups and downs of being both French and English
How Brexit vote has changed life for expats in France
Twelve French insults we'd love to have in English
What's on in France: Ten of the best events in October
jobs available