After all the speculation, the proposed plan for regional reform was revealed yesterday by the Hollande/Valls government
The proposal is a historic one: to re-draw the regional map of France, fusing some regions with others and in so doing, end up with a reduction in the number of regions from 22 to 14 in Continental France (there are a further 5 regions off-continent and overseas). A grand scheme, no doubt, but what is the purpose of it all?
France has something that we in Ireland can often feel jealous of – namely, a truly devolved and democratic system of government. The regions are the equivalent of our provinces, except that in France, these “provinces” have certain powers such as levying their own taxes and are elected by universal suffrage. The current status of the regions goes back to the last Socialist government when the regions were given stronger autonomy under President François Mitterand in 1982.
The new proposed regional set-up seems to be more of a move towards centralisation, but after all the talk over the last few years, many feel that the new proposed plan doesn’t go as far as what the people were led to believe it would in the beginning: the feeling amongst a number of editorials in the French press today is that the plan of simply fusing together a number of regions is a simplified version of what had been hinted at and designed not to upset too many people; the halfway-house crowd-pleaser of a move, in other words, of a president whose unpopularity is of record-breaking proportions.
Many felt, indeed, that there was every incentive this time to do away with the vast majority of regions. The departments (equivalents of counties) already have a strong level of devolved local government and polls have consistently showed that people are often more loyal to their departments than to their regions.
There was to be no good news either for the Bretons. They had hoped to be re-united with their old capital Nantes once more and various cultural and political movements in the region had been gathering pace in recent months to push for a re-drawing of the Breton map that would correspond with a more historically accurate Brittany. Many in Nantes and the Loire-Atlantique department declare themselves Breton, even though they have officially been part of the Pays-de-la-Loire region since 1956. Curiously enough, both the regions of Brittany and Pays-de-la-Loire were left untouched in the new regional proposals.
All across Brittany, protests broke out against the ignoring of the several please made to seemingly deaf ears for one of the most autonomous regions in France to be re-united under some form of governance.
There have been protests too from within the ranks of Hollande’s own government and, perhaps not unexpectedly, from regional representatives, many of whom will see their positions done away with. Hollande says that their goal is to dissolve the regional councils entirely by 2020.
The hope is that these regional reforms will save money to the French exchequer – possibly to the tune of €10 billion. But Alain Rousset – Socialist President of Acquitaine (a region that remains untouched under the new reforms) and head of the national grouping of French regions, has expressed concern over the loss of long-term benefits to the state. The regional councils, he says, are already far weaker than their German counterparts and this is important in terms of getting behind industry, training and research in the ongoing battle against unemployment (which, for France, is still heading in the wrong direction and out of kilter with most of the rest of Europe).
“The spend per head on the French regions is €395 per head,” he points out. “The average spend in Europe is between €3,000 and €4,700… Our neighbours who have already followed a policy of decentralisation have seen great success in the creation of enterprises.”
The proposed bill is yet to be debated in the Senate and put before the legislature.