‘French regions aren’t the problem, it’s the towns’

A decades-old plan to cut the number of French regions in half has once again reared its head and prompted a fierce row. The Local talks to two experts to find out whether a seemingly sensible move to cut bureaucracy will ever happen and whether it will do any good.

'French regions aren't the problem, it's the towns'
A plan to cut French regions has once again reared its head, but will it do any good? Photo: Philippe Huguen/AFP

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.

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