France/1982 - 2022: 40 years of decentralization

Published on 14/04/2022 | La rédaction


It was once considered an experiment, or at least an emerging mode of governance. Today, it has reached cruising speed. In four decades, decentralization has imposed itself on the French local political landscape. A reminder of the origins of the reform for the younger generations who may not have known about its beginnings, an assessment and ... prospects for the future: The Courrier du Parlement tells you everything about the new mode of governance that has marked the last quarter century.

It is now firmly rooted in French life: decentralization has long since left the stage of institutional experimentation.

So what led to the vote in 1982 of the first set of decentralization laws ("Act I") in the wake of the election of François Mitterrand?

A play in four acts!

Attempts had already been made.

For example, General de Gaulle's failure in 1969 to set up the Regions. It was worth his departure as head of state.

No doubt the economic crisis of the 1970s had reshuffled the cards. An omnipotent state was no longer the modern mode of governance that was needed in a country that had to reinvent itself.

This is not the least of the paradoxes: decentralization was a liberal demand. It was a socialist government that did it.

Act I, Act II, Act III and Act IV: decentralization has been played out since its inception as a play in four acts! And its history, precisely, has not been free of theatrical coups.

1982: the end of State control over local authorities

In the early 1980s, decentralization had great ambitions. It was a question of freeing up local talent and know-how. It was also about giving communities the power to decide on their own future.

One man was committed to this reform: Gaston Defferre, then Minister of the Interior and Mayor of Marseille. Under the aegis of Pierre Mauroy, Prime Minister and also elected representative of a large city, Lille, the law of March 2, 1982 was promulgated. Gone was the heavy supervision of local authorities! The role of the State was henceforth limited to a simple administrative and financial supervision. This is the principle of the prefectures, or of the administrative court. It is also the case of a new institution, also decentralized, the Chambre régionale des comptes.

The page of the omnipresent deconcentrated administrations of the State has been turned! Communes, Departments and Regions become fully-fledged territorial collectivities. The executive is moved from the Prefect to the departmental and regional presidencies.

This first draft of decentralization defined a new articulation of powers between the State, cities and regions.

It caused a lot of ink to flow.

Hopes, fears: the reform unleashed passions because it upset habits so much.

Could local elected officials be trusted to make public decisions within the limits of the legal framework?

Were a mayor, a president of a general council (but now also of a regional council) sufficiently knowledgeable and technically competent to make a decision?Were a mayor, a president of a general council (but now also of a regional council) elected officials sufficiently initiated and technically competent to carry out what until now only the ministries, relayed by the prefects, had the power to decide?

And it must be recognized that the beginnings of decentralization had their share of financial mismanagement. Here and there, we saw small palaces emerging in the middle of the fields, which were supposed to affirm the power of these new kings of the Republic.

France was recreating its lords and suzerains of the Ancien Régime!

Worse: the access to public markets brought back the hideous spectre of corruption...

This "Act I", as it was called in retrospect, did not happen overnight, as if by magic.

From 1982 to 1986, 25 laws completed by about 200 decrees followed one another.

Thus, in 1983, urban planning (at that time carried by the Land Use Plan and the Master Plans) and social action were transferred to the local authorities: this is the origin of the CCAS. Vocational training, on the other hand, was transferred from the Ministry to the Regions, all of which had recently been established as territorial collectivities.

Also, the management of secondary school buildings. Secondary schools were handed over to the Departments, high schools to the Regions: this institutional architecture has been maintained until today.

In 1984, the Territorial Public Service was created. New in its field, it now manages the careers of local government employees divided into three categories.

Decentralization as it appeared in the 110 proposals for France of 1981 was carried out in its main lines.

A rare measure that did not see the light of day was the creation of a Department of the Basque Country.

From 1982 to 1986: 25 laws completed by about 200 decrees.

Better still! The work of decentralization was continued in spite of the political alternations. It was confirmed in particular by the first cohabitation of the Fifth Republic (1986-1988).

And the 1990s saw a continuation of the reforms in the wake of Act I.

Thus, let us note the laws of February 6, 1992 related to the Territorial Administration of the Republic (ATR) or the "Joxe - Baylet" law. It organizes in particular the intermunicipal cooperation and creates the status of Community of communes.

Also the 1995 law on the Pays or Pasqua law, which was confirmed and amplified by the 1999 law ("Voynet law") introducing the concept of project territory.

Finally, the Chevènement law of 12 July 1999, simplifying and reviving intercommunality. It introduced the formula of "Communauté d'agglomération" (agglomeration community), which was a success.

Act II: "the organization of the French Republic is decentralized

Like his predecessors, the architects of decentralization, Jean-Pierre Raffarin was a local elected official. The Collectivity he presided over, the Poitou-Charentes Region, was born of the reform. Surely, it was his vocation to take over.

In March 2003, decentralization entered the Constitution. Title XII of the 1958 text was modified for the first time (since the 1969 reform had failed).

The green light was given to the legal and statutory developments of local authorities. Among them, we can mention experimentation. Also the notion of the "lead" local authority.

The law on local freedoms and responsibilities of 2004 accompanied this Act II. Its most striking fact, to the point of marking the road landscape, remains the transfer to the Departments of many national roads. Deemed to be of local interest, these now form the famous "four-digit" departmental roads whose signs are flourishing along our roads.

Other measures accompany it: the management of the RMI and social housing. And, for the Region, regional rail transport as well as aid to companies and professional training.

2010: Act III of decentralization or ... Act I of centralization?

By reforming the local authorities, the law replaces the business tax. Our Communes owed it a good half of their resources and thus their financial autonomy. The system that succeeds it puts in the hands of the State the task of redistributing their resources to the local authorities.

This Act III had another ambition: to simplify the infamous institutional "1000 sheets". The territorial councillor was to become the elected official common to the Departments and Regions. This one was supposed to rationalize the relations between two local authorities whose coexistence was too often criticized. The reform project did not survive the change of majority in 2012.

The presidency of François Hollande focused on modernizing local public action. Also to the territorial organization of the Republic.

The now famous "Metropolises" were born, giving a boost to the former Urban Communities. In particular, they give these large urban inter-communities increased strategic prerogatives and international influence.

And they reorganize the Regions into merged groups of 13 local authorities (18 including the overseas territories). Their competencies are also increased. They become "Mobility Organizing Authorities" (AOM). They are also "leaders" of many economic policies.

Act IV: an assessment of the Macron five-year term

Since 2017, the statutes of the FPT will have been retouched. And for a year, the "4D" law for "differentiation, decentralization, deconcentration, and de-complexification") has been discussed.

However, decentralization should not become a dogma. The recent Covid crisis has shown that centralized decisions taken at the national level can be effective to a certain degree. For once, France's decision-making process in this area has proven to be more pragmatic than the cacophony of its neighbor's regional states.

What will (or should) be the future of decentralization? It seems that the transfer of competencies is no longer the only criterion for progress in governance. The simplification of the administrative system poses a new challenge to our rulers.

Alsace has thus acquired a single assembly since this year. Tomorrow, perhaps Brittany, which has a project in the same direction.


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