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Remapping and merging the Regions with one another, redefining the role of the departments, promoting the grouping of municipalities, creating metropolitan areas, reducing the local authorities' expenditure, improving citizen proximity and involving them in the decision-making process in a more effective way: these were the expectations of the NOTRe law, which has overhauled the territorial organisation of the French Republic. The purpose of this article is to review the reasons which led to this territorial reform, in order to highlight the discrepancies between the announced objectives and reality, and specifically to show the challenges the French regions will have to face in the future.
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The French territorial reform of the regions: objectives,
risks and challenges for some forgotten territories
Authors:
André TORRE, Research Professor, UMR Sad-Apt, University of Paris-Saclay, INRA, AgroParistech
Sebastien BOURDIN, Professor, EM Normandie Business School, Metis Lab. sbourdin@em-normandie.fr
Abstract:
Remapping and merging the Regions with one another, redefining the role of the departments,
promoting the grouping of municipalities, creating metropolitan areas, reducing the local authorities
expenditure, improving citizen proximity and involving them in the decision-making process in a more
effective way: these were the expectations of the NOTRe law, which has overhauled the territorial
organisation of the French Republic. The purpose of this article is to review the reasons which led to this
territorial reform, in order to highlight the discrepancies between the announced objectives and reality,
and specifically to show the challenges the French regions will have to face in the future.
Keywords: decentralization, territorial reform, region, France, left behind
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Introduction
On June 3, 2014, the President of the French Republic François Hollande announced the launch of a
reform whose aim was to change the territorial architecture of the Republic. The objective was to
change the organisation of the French local authorities radically, in a country which had, in 2015, no
fewer than 36.658 municipalities, 101 departments, 13 metropolitan areas (including the Greater Paris
one) and 22 regions.
Following the 1982 decentralization laws and the incorporation of the decentralized Republic into the
Constitution in 2003, the President’s ambition was to simplify and clarify the territorial organization of
France with this reform, for everyone to know who is in charge, who finances it and from what
resources. It thus proposed a constitutional revision involving a reform of the inter-municipal
authorities, the disappearance of the departments and the reduction of the number of regions from 22
to 13, with new powers and appropriate financial resources. The idea was to simplify the institutional
architecture of France, with a law focusing on the delimitation of the regions and the procedures related
to regional and departmental elections, and another law on the new territorial organisation of the
Republic.
This situation is not new in Europe (Christensen, 2003). As in other countries, France is witnessing a "rise
of regional authority" (Hooghe et al., 2010) or a "rise of the meso" (Keating, 2013), which reflects an
increasingly strong interest in local conditions for exercising governance. If we consider the ongoing
territorial reform processes already underway in a lot of countries in Europe, we very quickly notice a
common point between these approaches (Schedler, 2003 ; Peace, 2008 ; Vrangbæk, 2010; Wollmann,
2010; Hlepas, 2010; Baldersheim and Rose, 2010; De Peuter et al., 2011). Regions and cities are on the
rise, while intermediate territorial levels such as departments seem to be under threat (Leonardi, 1992;
Hooghe et al., 2008; Palermo and Wilson, 2014; Schakel et al., 2015; Van Langenhove, 2016). This is for
example the case in Italy, where Matteo Renzi passed a bill reducing the powers of the provinces the
equivalent of the French departments in order to abolish them permanently in the long term (Basile,
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2019). Like other European countries, the French territorial reform seems to follow this dual trend which
consists in deepening the role of the regional level (Loughlin, 2007) and large cities, but also of the
metropolitan-regional couple. In addition, the transfer of skills towards the regions is systematized. For
example, the Belgian government has transferred 17 billion euros to its three regions, which
corresponds to the new skills it acquired in the health and employment fields (Wayenberg & Steen,
2018).
However, this federalization/regionalization is not free from difficulties. Baldini and Baldi (2014) thus
consider Italy as a case of failed and uncompleted federalization due to political and cultural factors, but
also and above all to the State’s schizophrenia since it wants to remain very centralized but also keep
its strong localism tradition at the same time. This duality can be noticed in France as well, with a
centralism tradition that is now being decried (Wright, 2003) and which has partly justified
regionalization. The debate on the territorial reform, discussed before the Parliament, has logically got
conflictual and has quickly focused on two specific points: the regions’ borders (and the choice of their
capital) on the one hand, and the place of the territories located outside the metropole on the other
hand. As in other countries, this regionalization raises lots of questions about the Afonso and Venâncio
(2019) regional spending efficiency.
The French territorial reorganisation is taking place in a dual international and national context. On a
global scale, on the one hand, we observe increasing pressures on the regions to become “economic
competitive actors”, with the associated neoliberal
1
idea of strengthening their economic
competitiveness (Brennetot, 2018) by means of appropriate reforms and procedures. On the other
hand, the reform appears in a context of economic crisis and institutional tension, which highlights the
end of the financial wealth of local authorities. As a consequence, the traditional mechanism of
"subsidies" becomes a rarer gesture and there is a need to rationalise the functioning of local
1
We define neo-liberalism according to Houghlin et al. (2010), as a policy and an ideology inspired by the ideas of
the “New right” of Hayek or Friedman, and opposed to the welfare state and Keynesian policies. It has inspired
Reaganism, Thatcherism, and a part of the New Public Management policies.
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authorities. These two evolutions imply the implementation of the new public management (Lane,
2002; Chandler, 2017), characterised by the need to rationalise the organisation of territorial structures
and to clarify the distribution of competences. At the same time, on the French scale, the reform is
taking place in a complex context in terms of territorial organisation (number of territorial layers,
municipal fragmentation, unclear boundaries of the various levels of government). The distribution of
competences is difficult to understand (they are increasing and intertwined with the different territorial
levels), local authorities are financially dependent from State allocations, and the central State has
introduced competition between the territories, leading them to apply for national calls for tender in
order to obtain financing for their development.
As a result, this international and national context has led to a territorial reform which is characterised
by the strengthening of the regions and the metropoles, a reduction by half of the number of regions,
a more visible repartition of competences between territorial levels (via the withdrawal of the general
jurisdiction clause), and the weakening of the communal (in favour of the inter-municipal level) and
departmental (in favour of the inter-municipal and regional level) levels. Following other scholars and
the usual way to designate these major mutations in the organisation of the French Republic, we refer
to them as the "territorial big bang", even if the initial goals were only partly reached in the end (Torre
et Bourdin, 2015).
In the rural areas, the local elected officials immediately rallied around this “territorial big bang”. Joined
by the local associations or mayors of very small municipalities, they highlighted the services provided
by the departments in isolated places, far from metropolitan areas and with populations in difficulty.
However, their usefulness in the suburban territories now well-established in the French landscape
is also underlined, particularly in terms of social cohesion, which remains their dominant competence.
In this context, and at a time when many questions are emerging regarding the place of peripheral
territories with the Yellow Vests revolt (Bourdin et al., 2021), the objective of our article is to question
the territorial reform and its consequences looking specifically at what consequences this reform has
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had for the French regions. Their numbers have been drastically reduced, most have seen their size
increase, and their competencies have undergone significant changes.
By retracing the initial objectives set out by the Government, we propose to assess the risks and
challenges for the regions. Following the approach of Ogbazghi (2020), we used the framework of
historical institutionalism to argue that the territorial reform has not achieved its main objectives. On
the basis of this framework proposed by Hall & Taylor (1996), we have therefore analysed the recent
evolution of institutions, conventions and funding of the French regions. Our study is based on an
analysis of the legislative texts and of various parliamentary reports produced by politicians of the
Senate and the National Assembly. We have also studied the reports of the Court of Auditors and the
documents produced by other national bodies dealing with territorial reform.
Our article is structured as follows: first, we will present the European and French context of
decentralization; then we will explain the challenges and outcomes of the territorial reform; finally, we
will detail more specifically the consequences of this reform for the territories "that don’t matter”.
1. From centralism to regionalization
From an international perspective, local governments in Europe represent a very great diversity of
structures, which is itself the result of historical developments and state traditions. France is no
exception to the rule in terms of historical determinism, but it has its own institutional traditions, which
largely undermined the sense and the pace of the possible reforms of the State and the way to
decentralization or de-concentration.
1.1. The European context of decentralization
Following various authors (Loughlin et al., 2012, Swianiewicz, 2014) one can define three types of state
in Europe: unitary states (France, Sweden, Ireland, Portugal and the Netherlands), federal states
(Germany, Belgium, etc.) and hybrid states (United Kingdom, Spain and even Italy). One can also
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distinguish four major state traditions influencing local organization: the Napoleonic tradition (France,
Italy, Spain, Greece) based on centralization, uniformity and symmetry; the Germanic tradition
(Germany, Austria, the Netherlands), which recognizes intermediate bodies working alongside a
powerful state; the Anglo-Saxon tradition, which does not recognize the notion of the State as a legal
person; and the Scandinavian tradition, which borrows the principle of uniformity from the French
model but incorporates it within a more decentralized framework. As a model of the Napoleonic state,
the French administration accepts very few differences in treatment between local and regional
authorities, which have to operate according to a standardized model and have neither legal powers
nor extensive resources.
This great diversity, although it makes the search for a possible single model of local government
inoperative, does not exclude, on the contrary, the identification of common practices and the
observation of similar developments towards more decentralization and local responsibilities. In this
respect, five main observations can be made: regarding the levels of local government, a majority of
European countries have a two-level model (Austria, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal,
United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, Romania) and a minority has a three-level model (Germany,
Spain, Italy, Poland). In each of these countries, local and regional authorities have broad competences
distributed according to the principle of subsidiarity and there is no supervision of one local and regional
authority over another; inter-municipality is widespread even if, in most cases, these are flexible and
non-institutionalized mechanisms; similarly, although cross-financing is frequent, it is left to the
discretion of the authorities and is not regulated.
Most European countries have undertaken reforms of their local administrative map with the goal of
reducing the number of municipalities and, in some cases, of promoting the regional level. However,
faced with the lack of success of voluntary approaches, they generally had to either abandon their
project in the face of hostility from the population or elected representatives, or resort to "authoritarian
laws". In addition, a widely shared trend is the emergence of the metropolises, which is characterized,
in federal countries, by the recognition of the capital as a federated state and, in unitary or 'mixed'
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states, by the establishment of the status of the metropolitan city, which combines communal, inter-
communal and departmental competences. Thus, the French territorial reform is part of a more general
European movement of decentralization and territorial administrative simplification.
1.2. The ambiguity of the French territorial movement of decentralization
For many observers (like Hoffmann-Martinot, 2002), France is mostly distinguishable due to its deep
Jacobin and centralist nature, with a very slow rate of decentralization compared to that of many
bordering countries, as well as the very measured and limited adaptations of local government
processes to people’s demands in local or participatory democracy. Despite numerous attempts of
decentralization or de-concentration, the situation has remained largely unchanged, and so has the
number of intermediate levels, and the only major change was caused by the success of inter-
communality measures in the first part of the 20th Century (Galès & Borraz, 2005).
The history of French decentralization can be interpreted as part of a broader effort from the French
State to face the increasing complexity of its mission and to reform itself (Thoenig, 2005; Cole, 2006).
From the 18th century onwards, tensions have increased between the absolutist power of the State and
the local level, which advocated more freedom. With the French Revolution, 36.000 municipalities
succeeded the pre-1789 parishes; they were conceived as the local level par excellence, that of citizen
proximity (Schmidt, 2007). From now on, the country will be organised in a uniform way, with four
administrative layers: the department, the district, the canton and the commune. Far from being
decentralizing, this unification of territorial organization, desired by the Jacobins, makes France a "one
and indivisible" Republic, centralized in Paris.
It was not until the early 2000s that new reforms of decentralization were implemented (Schmidt, 1990;
Levy, 2001; Levy et al., 2005), with the goal of "keeping the Republic of the proximities alive" as the then
right-wing Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin said. The law was published on August 13, 2004 and
sealed the recognition of the Region by the Constitution. The sentence France is an indivisible, secular,
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democratic and social Republic in Article 1 of the Constitution now adds: "and its organisation is
decentralised".
This bill broadens and deepens the decentralization concept imagined twenty years earlier. The
legislative package led by President Jacques Chirac constitutes "Act II of Decentralization". The
decentralised organisation of the State is characterised by a significant transfer of competences to the
various local authorities, such as economic development, transport infrastructure, tourism, social
housing or education. The Region is conceived as an economic development actor while the social
aspect is more falls to the department. This transfer comes with a redeployment of the State’s staff to
municipalities, departments and regions. Finally, local authorities have their own resources with
financial autonomy and the possibility of setting and collecting local taxes.
In the 2000s, it was in a context of economic and financial crisis that President Nicolas Sarkozy decided
to reform the territorial "millefeuille". The work of the "Committee for the Reform of Local Government"
resulted in several recommendations in 2008-2009: (i) rationalise the inter-municipal map, (ii) remove
the general jurisdiction clause
2
, (iii) improve the democratic process in local authorities, (iv) allow the
merger of municipalities for those who so wish, (v) reduce the number of regions to fifteen, (vi) create
eleven metropolises. In 2010, it was decided to add another layer to the territorial "millefeuille": the
metropolis.
The election of President François Hollande sped the process up, as he pushed to implement a real "Act
III of decentralization" during his mandate. The general jurisdiction clause was dropped in order to
clarify the allocation of functions at each level and to limit the accumulation of overlaps between
jurisdictions (Table 1). In addition, this "Act III" planned the reduction of the number of regions. On 25
November 2014, the National Assembly passed the law which reduced the number of regions from 22
to 13. On January 1, 2015, the law on the territorial public action modernisation and the affirmation of
2
The territorial authority which benefits from the general jurisdiction clause has a general capacity to intervention,
without it being necessary for the law to list its powers. Consequently, each level of local government can claim
competence in a specific field (transport, education, economic development, etc.).
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metropolitan areas created a new status for 11 metropolitan areas (agglomerations with more than
400.000 inhabitants) with competences in economic development, innovation, energy transition and
urban policy. Finally, on July 16, 2015, the National Assembly and the Senate definitively passed the law
on the new territorial organisation of the Republic (or NOTRe law). All in all, it is from the 2000s that a
process of decentralisation has really began, and this Act III marks a profound acceleration and a major
change in the French territorial organisation, explaining why we have called it "a territorial big bang".
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Table 1. Comparative summary of the distribution of competences
Area of competence
Regions
Departments
Economic development
Lead role
Direct and indirect aid
Indirect aid
Vocational training,
apprenticeship
Lead role - Definition of regional
policy and implementation
Employment and
professional integration
Professional integration within the
framework of the Active Solidarity
Income program
Recruitment - possibility of assisted
contracts promoting integration
Recruitment - possibility of assisted
contracts promoting integration
Education
High schools (buildings, catering,
staff)
Middle schools (buildings, catering,
staff)
Culture, social life, youth,
sports and leisure
Culture (heritage, education,
creation, libraries, museums,
archives)
Culture (heritage, education,
creation, libraries, museums,
archives)
Sports (equipment and grants)
Sports (equipment and grants)
Tourism
Tourism
Social and medico-social
action
Lead role - Organization and aid
Urbanism
Spatial planning
Regional plan for spatial planning and
sustainable development
(preparation)
Regional plan (opinion, approval)
State-Region planning contract
Environment
Natural areas
Natural areas
Regional natural parks
Waste (departmental plan)
Water (participation in the master
plans for water development and
management)
Water (participation in the master
plans for water development and
management)
Major equipment and
infrastructures
Inland ports
Seaports, commercial and fishing
ports
Aerodromes
Aerodromes
Roads
Regional Scheme
Departmental roads
Regional rail transport
Leader in intermodal transport. Rail
transport (optional) Road and school
transport outside urban areas
Communication
Network management
Network management
Housing
Financing
Financing, park and assistance, plan
and housing office
Security
Traffic
Crime prevention
Fire and rescue
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2. The challenges and issues of the territorial reform
Remapping and merging the Regions with one another, redefining the role of the departments,
redesigning inter-municipality and encouraging the merger of municipalities, creating metropolitan
areas, reducing the local authorities’ expenditure, improving citizen proximity and involving them in the
decision-making process in a more effective way: these are all the actions to be implemented within the
framework of the latest decentralisation law in France. These territorial challenges (Cole, 2012) leave
one cause for concern: the public authorities’ ability to achieve objectives as varied as contradictory
sometimes. In any case, it is obvious that the reform does not fundamentally call into question the
French territorial organization.
2.1. Feedback on the stated objectives of the NOTRe Law
The argument which is most often put forward, and which is probably the most discussed as well
(Mazzoleni, 2015), bears upon the rationalisation of public budgetary expenditure by increasing it from
22 to 13 regions (Pasquier, 2016). However, the latter spent 27.9 billion euros in 2012, that is to say
only 22% of local and regional authorities' expenditure (out of a total of 225.9 billion), which does not
seem excessive. This reform thus differs from the previous ones in that it does not aim to increase the
volume of local finances but rather to rationalize them. It could be considered that savings should be
made on the central government functioning (whose gross operating expenses amount to 235 billion
euros in 2012) rather than on local authorities, which are the main investors in the local economy. As
the French are very sensitive to this expenditure reduction issue, the Government justifies the budget
savings on local authorities by promising to contain the increase in local taxation and to free up public
investment capacities.
The second objective, linked to the previous one, is to achieve economies of scale by increasing the size
of the regions. When the bill was presented, figures were given by André Vallini, the Secretary of State
for the Territorial Reform, who announced savings of around 25 billion euros, soon to be reduced to 15.
Today, it has to be said that many French regions have seen their operating budgets increase. According
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to a study conducted by the Ifrap (the French Institute for the Research on Public Administration and
Politics), spending in the thirteen new major regions increased by €2.6 billion between January 2016,
when they were created, and 2017. For example, the Grand Est region’s expenditure has increased by
14%, which represents 444 euros per inhabitant.
Since Tiebout (1960), a lot of research has been conducted on the economies of scale matter and their
importance in local government processes (Bikker & van der Linde, 2016). The general trend is more in
favour of concentration (Blom‐Hansen et al. 2014; Drew et al. 2016), but it should be noted that 1) most
of the studies bear upon mergers of municipalities and therefore upon volumes which are well below
those considered here (Solé-Ollé and Bosch, 2005); 2) the optimal size varies according to the case and
rarely exceeds 100.000 persons (Reingewertz, 2012). The question really arises in a situation of
remoteness from decision-making centres. In other words, Regions which are the size of European
countries for the most part. Even if savings are made on the operating items of the new Regions by
eliminating duplication, reducing the number of elected representatives and pooling services, the fact
remains that most of the expenditure for example, Regional Express Trains or high schools will not
be halved, while the cost of overhauling services and longer journeys have an impact on budgets. Thus,
the lower flexibility and loss of proximity resulting from the merger of regions can lead to additional
costs for the community.
The third objective is about the search for an increase in the Regions’ competitiveness (Brennetot,
2017). The idea is to incorporate France into the global competition with large, more visible and stronger
entities and metropolises whose weight would be amplified. However, the underlying idea meaning that
"big is beautiful" remains to be questioned. One may wonder if regions such as the Aquitaine or the
Rhône-Alpes regions were so narrow that they had to be merged with other bordering ones. Several
authors have already pointed out that there is no correlation between the size of the territorial
community and their economic dynamism (Parkinson et al., 2015). Competitiveness cannot be decreed;
it must be built within the framework of a long-term strategy and an adequate budget. Brennetot (2017)
raises a contradiction in the will of a regulatory state which (i) advocates a rebalancing and wishes to
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reduce inequalities between Regions by reducing their number, but (ii) at the same time accelerates
decentralisation at the risk of increasing internal territorial disparities within each region. The cohesion
sought at a given scale will not necessarily be achieved at other scales.
A final objective of the reform focuses on the simplification and clarification of the territorial millefeuille.
The idea behind this task sharing is to simplify the daily lives of residents and companies in their efforts
(who does what? who to contact?) in order to improve the effectiveness of aid mechanisms. The law
thus withdraws the general jurisdiction clause for the Regions and departments, but not for the
municipalities, which continue to benefit from it given the wide range of actions they must carry out
with the populations. For example, the Region will have exclusive rights to direct aid to businesses and
will establish a regional scheme with a prescriptive vocation in the fields of economic development,
innovation and internationalisation (Table 1). However, reducing the number of regions does not
automatically simplify the French territorial administrative organisation. We consider that the increase
in the size of the regions will only accentuate the need for the local level of the department, whose
future remains uncertain. In addition, due to the creation of metropolitan areas whose aim is to
replace departments the rural territories issue remains unresolved (Torre and Wallet, 2014).
2.2. Questions about the method
Serious doubts have arisen as to the method used to reform the territorial organisation of the French
Republic. First of all, the way things are done. This territorial reform is directly commissioned by Paris
and the State services. The Jacobin State organizes a form of regionalization and metropolization which
questions its capacities for reform or decentralization, not to mention federalization. We find here a
top-down method while considering territorial specificities would often require tailor-made solutions.
The "one size fits all" concept no longer works in European regions and it is necessary to implement
more territorialized policies (Bourdin, 2018), as promoted by the EU with smart specialization measures
(Foray, 2014; McCann and Ortega-Argilés, 2015). In practice, no consultation has been or will be carried
out in this context of territorial reform, whereas the principles of participatory democracy and
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stakeholder involvement in bodies and decisions are topical in many countries of the world (Behrend
and Whitehead, 2016).
This reform reveals a French tradition in which elected officials often refuse to involve citizens in the
development of public policies (Pasquier, 2014 and 2015). Yet the few examples of citizen participation
(in the preparation of urban planning documents, for instance) have shown that this involvement not
only improves the democratic debate quality, but also helps significantly the citizens to accept the
constraints imposed by the public authorities. Moreover, only a few local elected officials were
consulted during the reform process, and they were often in conflict with the decisions taken by the
government.
Then, comes the timing issue. The process was launched by surprise, in a hurry, without any prior
preparation, as if the urgency was unavoidable. However, no one seriously believed that, in the face of
the crisis, rising inequality and stalled growth, the very first necessity was to reform the country's
territorial organization. Waiting for this urgently implemented territorial reform to resolve territorial
disparities and associated problems in France (Loughlin and Seiler, 2001; Talandier et al., 2016) seemed
illusory.
Moreover, during the 1982 regionalization, plenty of preliminary studies made it possible to compare
the divisions with different scenarios based on historical, geographical or economic foundations, for a
final intermediate choice between the historical regions, close to the departments, and five major
economic regions, based on the areas of influence of major cities. However, these reports were
apparently ignored in the preparation process of the 2015 reform.
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3. Issues raised by the big bang for the regions: the cost of the territorial reform,
and what about the places which do not matter?
Given the challenges raised and the objectives set by the last territorial reform, it seems interesting to
take a close look at its results and to examine both its positive effects and limits, along with the
consequences for the territories which, according to our analysis, have been left out of this territorial
big bang.
3.1 What are the benefits and costs of the reform?
Today, we can look back on the expected results of the reform and the passed laws, and particularly
point out their advantages or the risks they represent for the Republic’s organization, but also the
territories and the different levels of governance in France.
The argument which is often put forward in favour of spatial reorganization bears upon the
rationalisation of public action and the clarification of competences between the different territorial
authorities. This general competence clause exists in France, the United Kingdom and Ireland ("general
competence"), or in Germany ("allgemeine Zuständigkeitsvermutung"). It stipulates that local
authorities have the right to decide on all matters they themselves consider important. This general
competence rule has been adopted in most of continental Europe and is often seen as a consequence
of the subsidiarity principle (Merloni, 2016). However, in France, it was decided to remove this clause,
arguing that the omni-competence of each territorial authority (Region, Department, Intercommunality,
Commune) generated redundancies and overlaps in public actions, making policies sometimes
ineffective. The law MAPTAM leads to a limited but very real redistribution of competences, specifically
between Regions and departments. From now on, economic planning such as direct aid to companies
is reserved for the Regions, and social action and solidarity for the departments, while municipalities
and their groups are in charge of urban planning and the organisation of everyday public services (Table
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1). From this point of view, the abolition of the general competence clause can be considered as a step
forward in helping to identify the devolution of each level, putting a curb on the dispersal of expenditure
and limiting the willingness to intervene in all directions. At the same time, however, as Merloni (2016)
points out, the competences of each authority are not fully defined despite the reform and the
devolution of regions continue to request clarification.
The second achievement of the reform is that it has increased the legitimacy of the role played by the
Regions, if only thanks to the media coverage of the debate on their geographical borders and the
groupings they have brought about. This discussion contributed to their definitive recognition as one of
the major organizations of the French State’s structure, before the departments or municipalities, to
such an extent that no one disputes their pre-eminent place in the architecture of the Republic
nowadays. Finally, with a few exceptions, the dimensions are consistent and the population volumes
are expected to have mass effects. It can be considered that the Regions will thus reach a critical size
which is more favourable to reindustrialisation processes, aid to companies or infrastructure financing.
It is also to be expected that they will play a more important role on the European scale, and thus more
effectively bring the hopes and initiatives coming from the territories into international competition.
However, in addition to these positive points, it is easy to identify several potential disadvantages or
limits, corresponding to the risks the reform represents for both communities and populations.
The first and most obvious problem is related to the size of the new regions; some have become so large
that it is difficult to find the equivalent in other European countries (in particular the Occitanie and
Nouvelle Aquitaine regions, which are almost as large as Austria). Apart from the Nouvelle Aquitaine
region, which accounted for the majority of the members of the general management team in the
former capital of Aquitaine (Bordeaux), the merged regions very early on showed their desire to
preserve their territorial balance. This wish resulted in the maintenance of sites located in the capitals
of the former regions. The desire not to give the feeling of one region being "absorbed" by another may
have led to a distinction between the administrative capital, the headquarters of deliberative work, and
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the regional host (for example, in the case of the Bourgogne-Franche-Comté region). For the sake of
balance, the merged regions also wished not to hold their deliberative assemblies (plenary assembly
and standing committee) on a single site, as much as possible. For example, the Regional Council of
Normandie has established its headquarters in Caen but decided to hold two annual meetings in Rouen
and one in Le Havre, while the Nouvelle Aquitaine region is supposed to establish a few committees in
Limoges and Poitiers, in addition to Bordeaux. Multi-site locations lead to managerial difficulties which
are not negligible and the additional costs generated by the fragmentation between sites have neither
been measured nor monitored thus far. Moreover, the merger of the regions has required the alignment
of civil servants' salaries in the former regions to the most favourable salary. For example, the levelling
cost 10M to the Normandie region.
Table 2: additional annual spending on wages for the French regions between 2016 and 2021 (source:
report of the regional court of auditors)
Regions
Total annual increase in salaries between 2016-2021
Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes
3 to 4 million
Bourgogne-Franche-Comté
€2 million
Grand Est
€16 million
Hauts-de-France
€0.65 million
Normandie
€10 million
Nouvelle-Aquitaine
€14 to 17 million
Occitanie
€3.7 million
This led to an increase in expenses. For example, the Occitanie region has chosen not to hold any of its
plenary meetings in the regional capital: its regional council meets in plenary session in Montpellier, not
Toulouse. This organisation is the result of a desire for balance within the merged region and of a
commitment by the president, prior to the merger, when the latter, a time questioned by the Senate,
was still uncertain. Moreover, neither of the two hemicycles can accommodate the 150 elected
members of the regional council: while the one located in Toulouse could be the subject of development
work for this purpose, for an amount estimated at €7M by the local authority, the configuration of the
one in Montpellier excludes any possibility of substantial resizing. The local authority is therefore calling
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on a service provider to organise these sessions at the Montpellier 120 exhibition centre, for an initial
unit cost of €140.000, which has been reduced to €98.000.
Moreover, it is obvious that this increase in volume is encouraging some of the population to move
away from decision-making centres, particularly from the regional capital. Many elected or local officials
are thus more than two or three hours' drive away from their regional capital, and will find it difficult to
have themselves heard and to represent the voices and interests of the citizens. This distance could lead
to a feeling of a new removal of the State from rural or peripheral territories, considered as abandoned
(Rodríguez-Pose, 2018 ; Bourdin et Tai, 2021). We can thus expect a decrease in the quality, or even a
lack or suppression, of local services in a context of cost reduction. This phenomenon is already
observed in many rural areas and is causing concern among rural elected officials, who have several
times mobilized against the harmful effects of the new law. One can recall that in other European
countries, such as the United Kingdom (McCann, 2016) or Spain (Nel and Gomà, 2018), these decisions
to leave certain territories aside may have led to the creation of a discontent geography causing
problems in terms of rising populism (Rodríguez-Pose, 2018; European Commission, 2018 ; Bourdin et
al., 2021). The recent yellow vest crisis in France shows that the forgotten territories matter and that
issue needs to be addressed in the country as well.
3.2. Risks for some territories which have been forgotten in the territorial reform
It is clear that the reform benefits some territories more than others. What is important, and this is our
opinion, is that the reform is likely to systematically benefit specific types of territories (i.e. the most
urbanised ones) and disadvantage some others (i.e. rural areas). The territorial reform seems to be
based on the idea that France is above all a urban country, whose organisation should be structured
around a number of large cities and then, through successive breakdowns, medium-sized municipalities
or inter-municipalities, in order to create a network of rural areas. In the final texts of the reform, it is
above all the metropolises which are put forward and are the focus of attention in every respect, with
the future of France emerging from its most densely populated territories. We argue that the territorial
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reform has forgotten some territories (specifically the rural ones), and this has direct consequences for
these territories which have been left behind.
Firstly, in terms of democracy or the representation of opinions and the voice of the people. As already
mentioned, the reform was undertaken without consulting or involving the local populations in the
decision-making process, which is in contradiction with the European Charter of Local Self-Government
(1985) whose preamble and first article insist on the citizens’ right to participate in the affairs’
administration and on the necessity for public authorities to interact with them locally in the best
possible and direct way (Mikheev, 2014). This lack of local consultation and bottom-up logic in the
territorial reform only reinforced the disenchantment of a part of the electorate with French politics.
Moreover, we argue that, by strengthening metropolises to the detriment of rural territories, the
territorial reform has contributed to a rising feeling of inequality between urban and rural territories.
The result has been a significant increase in votes in favour of radical parties during the last presidential
elections (from 6.5 to 7.5 million voters for the Rassemblement National party between 2012 and 2017),
particularly in the territories left behind by public policies and set aside of the Act III of decentralization
(rural territories, declining industrial territories) (see map 1) (Bourdin and Tai, 2021).
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Map 1. 2017 Presidential Election, Round 1 - leading candidates
The idea of entrusting the future of France to metropolitan areas raises serious doubts about the future
of sparsely populated areas, which are considered, in the best case scenario, to be at the service of large
urban areas. In addition to the fact that such an option has overlooked the particularly significant growth
of these areas in recent years (even if its volume remains low, of course), it neglects some of these
territories’ very particular dimensions (Torre and Wallet, 2016). First of all, it should be recalled that
France's wealth a country deprived of mining and energy resources lies above all in two assets: on
the one hand, its landscapes and its diversity, resulting from the variety of its terroirs and its climatic
and geomorphological varieties; and on the other hand, the quality and diversity of its human resources,
with extremely varied skills and experience, depending on the location, origins and types of production.
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Conclusion
The issues raised by the implementation of the 2014-2017 territorial laws are numerous. First of all, this
is a funding matter. The merger of regions has resulted in additional costs (for example, coordination
costs) which resulted in reduced or shrinking services to the population in some territories. The second
issue is geographical. The regions’ size increase has created a distance between the decision-making
places and those where the inhabitants live, as well as between the decisions taken by the
administrative services and the population. The third problem is related to identity. Inter-
communalities, metropolization and large regions are often characterized by boundaries and
denominations which are new. However, some citizens are questioning the symbolism and cultural
identity of megaregions such as the Grand Est and the Nouvelle Aquitaine regions. Hence the following
questions: when a new name is given to an administrative territory with no apparent logic, what cultural
feeling and, therefore, what motivation do the inhabitants have? To what extent can they manage to
agree with a perimeter without geographical or historical logic and whose precise competences are
difficult to understand? Aren’t they likely to experience difficulties in getting involved in the social life
of a territory with which they do not identify? This raises a broader final issue, that of democracy. The
yellow vest movement is very significant in terms of desire from those who claim to be part of this revolt
to obtain more direct and participatory democracy, but also to feel considered by politicians and
policies. Indeed, democracy is first and foremost local, and about the participation of inhabitants in the
life of the territory they live in. Hasn’t this question of citizenship, which is therefore central, been
forgotten during the 2014-2017 territorial laws in favour of a search for the big is beautiful concept
and an ever-increasing distance from the decision-making and power centres? We try to assess these
various dimensions in Table 3.
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Table 3: An assessment of the effects of the territorial reform
In terms of
democracy
In terms of costs
Urban/rural
divide
General
competence
clause
Positive
Beneficial
Neutral
Strengthening of
the regions’ role
Positive
Neutral
In favour of
urban areas
Size of the new
regions
Negative
Costly
In favour of
urban areas
Accent on
metropoles
Neutral
Neutral
In favour of
urban areas
In this context, we believe that the geographical proximity relationship must be preserved, especially
since some territories have been left out of this reform, due to the strengthening roles of the regions
and metropolises. The decline in the provision of public services in many peripheral territories, leading
to a feeling of frustration and abandonment from the State, is a reality. This is the case in a number of
small and medium-sized rural cities which are declining as the agricultural sector gets less important
and few alternatives are available. Consequently, suffering from a lack of connections with the major
productive centres, it is difficult for these regions to reinvent themselves and reactivate an economic
dynamic. However, we believe that a large proportion of the future jobs will not depend on the
international competitiveness of a few companies located in metropolitan areas, but on endogenous
economic dynamics and local economic systems, particularly those located in rural areas. So, would the
new laws finally be an opportunity for the territories lost at the borders of macro-Regions and far from
the Public Authorities?
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... The case of France is particularly interesting from this point of view (Torre, Bourdin 2021). In 2018, the country was shaken by a large-scale protest movement well known as the 'yellow vests' movement (related to the name of the garment the protestors were wearing). ...
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A broad-ranging assessment of continuities and change in local governance in the western industrialized world providing in-depth assessments by leading experts of a wide range of countries exemplifying between them the whole spectrum of types and models of local government systems and networks. A central focus is on the impact of public management reforms, new forms of community governance and changes in central-local relations. (From the editor)
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