In two steps, Francois Hollande and Manuel Valls have shaken up the different levels of regional government more than anyone else since the Second World War. First, the President announced a possible reduction of the number of regions in France, later confirmed to be a desire to halve the current number of 22 in mainland France. Then Valls announced in his general policy speech that the timeline for this reduction would be short, and that the elected councils in place for the 101 departments would be dissolved. In addition to the current reform of the groups of towns and villages (the communautes de communes) and the new metropolitan areas encompassing the largest cities, the way France governs itself is set to change radically over the next 5 years as a result of this administrative Yalta. But how, and will it work?
A Regional Affair
France’s current regions are a remarkable success story. Created by combining departments with some (but not too much) regard for history or regional identity (the dismembering of the ancient territory of Poitou still rankles some, the historic capital of Brittany, Nantes, finds itself outside of Brittany and the separation of Normandy into two entities remains an oddity) in 1972, the regions have since become part of the national psyche. A fundamentally regional people (the French still talk fondly of their pays, the region where they grew up or where their family finds its roots), the region served to structure this regional identity in a way that the departments had never managed.
With high profile Presidents, elected councils and wide ranging power in economic matters, the regions today find themselves battling against unemployment and a declining industrial base. Some have been successful in building up tourism and strengthening vocational education, however most are constrained by limited financial means and the centralisation of a historically Jacobin state.
Hollande and Valls are convinced that part of the problem is that the regions do not have the critical mass to be economically effective – increasing their size (and therefore reducing their number) would give them more punch. Attempts to merge regions have been made before. Franche Comte and Bourgogne have long wanted to combine their efforts. Alsace recently held a referendum to combine the region and its two departments into one body – a referendum that failed due to a bizarre campaign by the FN against the measure which claimed that it would result in a “less-French Alsace”.
There is widespread public support for combining regions, as long as you don’t ask too many questions about individual regions, and predictable opposition from region Presidents whose jobs are about to go up in smoke. The latest rumours suggest that the measure is likely to be pushed through the parliament in a stand-alone bill (which the Senate will reject, but be overridden by the National Assembly).
The new car number plates introduced in 2009 sought to remove the link between the department of the driver and the plate itself – previously drivers had to change plate every time they moved to a different department as the department number featured on the plate itself. A seemingly simple change provoked a campaign to retain the link to the department, which was sated by the inclusion of a regional logo on the new plates.
Such is the spiritual connection the French have to their department, but not it would seem to their department’s elected officials who sit in conseils generaux (soon to be renamed conseils departementaux) across the country in 101 departments. The departments are charged with running social programmes delegated to them by the state, effectively processing claims over which they have no flexibility as to the rules of attribution, roads, lower secondary schools and a host of other responsibilities.
Departments are however increasingly competing with the new communities of towns and villages that have existed in other forms since the 1990s but have progressively been given competence over parks, sporting facilities and transport. The communities are set to continue growing, with the territorial reforms of 2013 (yes, another one…) forcing them to combine their efforts.
Some departments may find that they a dominated by a small number of communities (perhaps as few as three or four). The government seems to view these communities as the replacement of the department, and a counterpoint to the smaller villages and towns (or metropolitan areas for the largest cities which will effectively act as super-communities) and the reformed regions. The communities will be able to choose (to a certain extent) how to merge with their neighbours, however given that their political makeup was determined in the recent local elections, many predict a quasi-hegemony of the right in the new communities. The government plan seems to be to remove the governance level of departments, including their elected bodies, transferring their social competencies to the communities and economic role to the regions, with the departments remaining as lines on the map (and of course, numbers in the postcode).
There is however a constitutional elephant in the room. Article 72 of the French Constitution explicitly refers to the departments as self-governing through elected councils. Changing this article requires a referendum (which would be suicidal in this climate) or a two thirds majority in congress (the National Assembly and Senate sitting together), which would be politically impossible to obtain. The same article provides perhaps some solutions, including the idea of replacing one community (the department) with another (the communities) by statute, or by retaining some very limited role for departments effectively rendering their status and elected officials as symbolic. Whatever the proposal, expect constitutional wrangling over this element of the reform which is likely to be in a standalone bill.
The Political Question
Regional elections are currently set for 2016 for both regional and departmental councils. The government initially planned for the reforms to take place between 2017 and 2022, however a sense of increased urgency has gripped all and the idiocy of holding a vote for a body that would be modified or even dissolved the following year has become apparent. Instead the government now suggests bringing the elections forward to 2015, by which time the new map of France would be ready. This would enable the government to claim to have completed the reform by the 2017 Presidential Election.
The right is in broad agreement with merging the regions, although, despite Jean-Francois Cope’s previous statements in favour of dissolving the departments, the conservatives are uneasy about the departments. One reason is electoral – the departments are a bastion of the Socialists, thanks to their excellent result in the last departmental elections in 2011. Removing them would anchor the strength of the right in the new communities for the next six years. That goes to the heart of the opposition of many Socialist elected officials – they are worried that they will lose control of the territories they spent so long conquering, and create in the process territories that will remain in the hands of the right for the foreseeable future. This concern, whilst natural, is somewhat ironic – without the reform, the left risks being swept away in the next elections in 2016 anyway, or at the least returning to a more balanced state of play with the right.
The question is whether or not the interested objections on the left could combine with the reflexive conservatism on the right to block the changes to the departments. Valls has continuously said that the reform “will happen” – he is not backing down (and it is not in his nature to do so either). The risk could be however that the Constitutional Council, following a challenge by the uneasy coalition of left and right, blocks the change. This is high risk political poker, but Valls has always been a betting man.