Op-Ed: Is Now the Time for Decentralization Reforms?

Marylise Lebranchu. Photo: Flickr.com/jyc1

Marylise Lebranchu.
Photo: Flickr.com/jyc1

The names are Marylise Lebranchu and Anne-Marie Escoffier. The former is Minister of the Reform of the State, Decentralisation and Civil Service, while the latter is her delegate in charge of the Decentralisation. Together, these two women will have to implement one of the deepest and hardest reforms on the platform of the President: the re-organisation of the State. Since 1982, local political power has been divided into two branches: the local representation of the central State (which consists of the local branches of the State civil service) and the decentralised authorities of communes, départements and régions.  As the two branches have developed in parallel, their level of complexity has exposed them to some well-deserved criticism including heavy bureaucracy, blurred responsibilities, overstaffing…

Quick to respond to such populist issues, former President Nicolas Sarkozy requested in 2008 a report from Edouard Balladur. Balladur pleaded for a simplification of the administration map and proposed to merge the 36,000 plus communes (half of the municipalities in all of Europe) into a few thousand of intercommunalités, and to transfer a larger part of the département responsibilities to the régions. The main goal was to create territories that would be able to face the challenges of Europeanization and globalisation. However, Mr. Sarkozy could not implement this reform as met serious opposition from local officials who pressured him into lowering his ambitions. As a result, only incentive measures were taken and no simplification has happened since. Three years later, a quick assessment reveal the superficiality of this reform and the French local authorities are still not powerful enough to compete with their Spanish or German counterparts.

Therefore, the stakes were high for a debate on the question during the Presidential campaign. But in a time of crisis, it did not enthuse the crowds as both candidates had almost the same ideas for how to tackle the subject; the only difference between them was the role of the département – Sarkozy wanted to decrease the power of the département while Hollande wanted to maintain it. In the end, their campaigns mostly revolved around social and economic issues, and Mr. Hollande was elected on these platform points and more simply the fact that he was not the incumbent.

Hollande is now President and it is a good time to look in detail at his positions about decentralisation. The 54th of his 60 campaign promises evokes a new act of decentralisation.  This act would reverse Sarkozy’s reform and re-build the relationship between the central State and the local authorities around a “pact of solidarity and trust.” Régions, départements and intercommunalités would have their responsibilities re-enforced.If the principle of merging together the communes is accepted, there are still many resistances against Sarkozy’s idea of merging the départements into the regions. And Mr. Hollande will surely not continue down the path of his predecessor.

Of course, there is a reason for this. Since 2011, the Left has controlled of most of the local authorities and the thousands of counsellors exert pressure on the national leader of the Socialist Party. The choice of Lebranchu and Escoffier was made for this reason. The first was the head of the PS officials and the second was former prefect and a senator of the Parti Radical de Gauche – the Radical Left Party – a smaller ally of the PS that is very conservative regarding issues such as the representation of the rural areas of the country.

But let us not fool ourselves. Even if this new “trust relationship” is to be set up between the Government and the local powers, there are many other factors are making deep reforms unlikely under Hollande’s Presidency. First, it does not correspond to the traditional ideology of the Left which has often, if not always, defended the local authorities against the power and control of the central State.

Also, though a vast majority of experts agree on the need for administrative simplification, the French are much attached to the structure of départements and communes as they are to the older political structures in the country and these often define local identities. Thus, if even the very authoritative Sarkozy could not impose such a reform of the French, it is very unlikely that the very consensual Hollande will be about to.  Also he will need his political capital for other more urgent reforms.

In general, too much resistance will discourage any ambitious project. Rather, we should expect a reform that would support the local powers, probably at the expense of a State heavily in debt. The big question will be the one of local finances. On this point, Hollande’s platform implies that more autonomy could be given to the local authorities on fiscal matters, so he would be escape being criticise for insufficient funding. If it ever happens, that transfer of power could constitute a big step forward for the decentralisation process to Hollande’s credit.

Additionally this reform must be undertaken soon. In the spring of 2014, the local elections will renew all of régions’ and communes’ councils and most of the départements’. These elections are likely to give the majority to the opposition which is now the right-wing UMP as that it is what often happens. Such results would thus discourage any transfer of power to the local authorities. If that were the case, it would be disappointing and one more time politicians would have proved that they are more interested in short-term benefits than in long-term solutions.

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