Territorial reform: the chronicle of a failure foretold?
The plan to redraw the map of administrative regions announced by the President of the Republic on Monday evening will not succeed. Such is the view expressed by Jean-Paul Delevoye, president of the Economic, social and environmental council during an interview with Europe 1. Many commentators also share that opinion.
Yet, there was nearly an unanimous consensus on the issue of the need for a reform of the administrative map – nicknamed mille-feuille after the cake of many layers of puff-pastry and cream. All political party and most experts on decentralization agreed on the need, and even the urgency, to simplify it. The Mauroy Commission, the Senator Krattinger report, the Balladur Commission, not to mention countless Court of Auditors’ reports share that diagnostic – even if they have proposed different remedies to the situation. The law passed on December 16 2010 set up a territorial counselor, elected to rule both the region and the department administrative units. That move marked a pragmatic and progressive milestone down the reform path. But to follow up on promises made during the campaign for the elections the measure was repelled by the new majority… in January 2014!
It was complicated for François Hollande to call upon yet another commission to set up new regional borders –and even less so to organize the territorial summit meetings some were asking for—just two years after his nomination while regional and departmental counselors were scheduled to be reelected next spring. The Senate house sponsored such regional summit meetings in the fall of 2012.
Yet was it necessary to give such an impression of unpreparedness and lack of dialogue?
To everyone’s complete surprise, Manuel Valls, in his general policy speech delivered on April 9, announced the reduction of number of regions, from 22 to 12 by 2017 and called for proposals from regional elected representatives. Following the European elections, the President of the Republic announced on a broadcast interview, on May 26, that he intends to speed up the schedule. This was actually the starting point of a loss of control.
After just a few rushed off meetings in the Elysée, an op-ed piece was sent on Monday June 2 at 8.45 PM to the local press, which had been initially informed that an official announcement was scheduled at 8.00 PM. In the paper, François Hollande suggests that, in order to enhance their role, the number of regions would be cut from 22 down to… « XXX »! This means that the Elysée did not know yet whether there should be 14 (the number finally took on) or 12 regions, as unveiled the day before by the Journal du Dimanche… and revealed in April by the new Prime Minister. Only after about an hour and a half did the final number of regions reach the press will recall later Patrick Fluckiger, columnist for the Dernières Nouvelles d’Alsace.
Several contradictory statements and inopportune tweets followed this episode – « At 8.00 PM, TF1 announced that Picardie was matched with Nord-Pas-de-Calais » and « two hours later, on France 2 news, we were matched with Champagne-Ardenne », noted, dubious, the president of Picardie general council Claude Gewerc. The icing on the cake was the Secretary for territorial reform, André Vallini, forecasting the following day that the reform would allow to save 10 billion euros within 5 to 10 years, an amount falling short of his previous early June projection of 12 to 25 billion euros saving. That number was immediately contested by the President of the French regions association.
« From a strict communication standpoint, this is a disaster. We laid a trap for ourselves », whispered a cabinet councilor to the newspaper Libération.
Since then, conflicting or reticent commentaries tumble out at a rapid pace and many wonder whether the executive is capable of making the reform pass.
Yet is the reform for all that doomed to failure? Nothing is less certain.
Polls show that this reform meets popular support, because it is a political response to high expectations of simplification and reduction of structures and procedures, and a better awarding of responsibities among administrative units. When considering the 36.000 municipalities, thousands of municipal groupings, and hundred departments, it is a wise strategic choice to start with the reform of the regional level, which is the territorial level that counts the smallest number of units, resources and allocations, and has the most promising future.
To make of this strategy a success, the government should avoid being blamed for making a « political coup » by choosing a more Jacobin than a decentralized strategy. With this in mind, the government must change at least two components of its communication plan. First, it need to prove, in an audacious and clear manner, what will follow the reduction of the number of regions, or, in other words, what is the master plan for the territorial administration of the country. Acting step by step does not exclude having an overall view, which needs to be shared with the French. The government should also accept the emergence of real debate on the new regional borders during the parliamentary review, even if it is highly tempting to prevent such a debate to take place in order to avoid the risk of a messy rough and tumble foundation of the territorial map. On what criteria should the assembling of the regions be decided? What are the main geographical, demographic, economic, social and cultural features of the regions, in the 21th century?
If those questions do not lead to a thoughtful debate and are met by clear answers, it is to be feared that the law will be reviewed after the next presidential elections – assuming that the law is actually voted upon, which is not yet unless the government uses article 49-3 of the constitution to impose it – as it was the case for the law passed the 16th of December 2010. If this scenario materializes, France would have lost five more years on the territorial reform, which remains a necessity and is a condition of the country’s economic recovery and competitive gains.