Administrative thrashing in France

In the May 9th issue of the Economist, a fascinating article on a forthcoming reorganization of the administrative regions of Metropolitan France: “New kids on the block: Redrawing regional boundaries is causing big rows and will save little”. The crucial map:

You will see that the regions correspond crudely to the large historical provinces of France, so they tend to be associated with significant social identities; as a result, messing with the boundaries is politically fraught.

Highlights from the article:

Montpellier. The monumental neoclassical headquarters of Languedoc-Roussillon is a model of statement architecture. With defiant, muscular authority, it stands across the river from the historical centre of Montpellier, its plate glass glistening in the sun. It also towers over an assembly of faux-Greek esplanades and avenues, the outsized legacy of a former regional president, George Frêche. Under Frêche, who for 27 years was Montpellier’s Socialist mayor, the regional government made its mark, and not just in buildings. Between 2005 and 2010, the region’s annual payroll costs ballooned from €22m to €108m ($143m).

Now, however, Montpellier is to lose its position as regional capital. As part of an efficiency drive in a country notorious for its millefeuille of administrative layers, the government plans to shrink the regions from 22 to 13 in January 2016. Some will keep existing borders, including Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur [note the triple-barreled name], where Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, grand-daughter of the now shunned Jean-Marie Le Pen, may be the National Front’s regional presidential candidate in December. Others are to be reunified, such as the two halves of Normandy.

Elsewhere, the map has been redrawn in haste and amid some controversy. Languedoc-Roussillon has been told to merge with Midi-Pyrenées to form a giant region of 6m people encompassing much of the Pyrenees and the Mediterranean coast. The capital will be Toulouse.

… Far less clear is whether the merged region will bring budget savings. French public-sector jobs are protected, so there will be no headcount cull after the merger.

… It may be that, with time, the new regions will settle down, forge a new identity, help drive growth—and one day even save public money. But the transition is likely to be bumpy. Quadruple-barrelled names, such as Alsace-Champagne-Ardenne-Lorraine, are indigestible and unlikely to last. Yet French Catalans would be livid if the new south-west region were renamed simply Languedoc. Similar misgivings exist in Picardy, which is to merge with Nord-Pas-de-Calais, and fears being swamped by that region and its politically mighty capital, Lille. “We’ll have to drive nearly two hours up the motorway to get subsidies,” grumbles a town-hall employee in Picardy. In Montpellier, too, the horse-trading has only just begun. As one official says wryly: “We have to find something for all these people to do.”

Background: Let’s start with the provinces of France. From Wikipedia:

The Kingdom of France was organized into provinces until March 4, 1790, when the establishment of the department (French: département) system superseded provinces. The provinces of France were roughly equivalent to the historic counties of England. They came into their final form over the course of many hundreds of years, as many dozens of semi-independent fiefs and former independent countries came to be incorporated into the French royal domain. Because of the haphazard manner in which the provinces evolved, each had its own sets of feudal traditions, laws, taxation systems, courts, etc., and the system represented an impediment to effective administration of the entire country from Paris. During the early years of the French Revolution, in an attempt to centralize the administration of the whole country, and to remove the influence of the French nobility over the country, the entirety of the Province system was abolished and replaced by the system of départements, which is still in use today.

Ah, the departments. There are lots of them. From Wikipedia:

In the administrative divisions of France, the department (French: département …) is one of the three levels of government below the national level (“territorial collectivities”), between the 27 administrative regions [22 in metropolitan France] and the commune. There are 96 departments in metropolitan France and 5 overseas departments, which also are classified as regions.

This is the way things are now. But the regions are relatively recent. From Wikipedia again:

France is divided into 27 administrative regions (French: région …), 22 of which are in Metropolitan France, and five of which are overseas. Corsica is a territorial collectivity (French collectivité territoriale), but is considered a region in mainstream usage …. The mainland regions and Corsica are each further subdivided into departments, ranging in number from 2 to 8 per region for the metropolitan regions; the overseas regions technically consist of only one department each. The term region was officially created by the Law of Decentralisation (2 March 1982), which also gave regions their legal status.

So in between the innovations of the Revolution and 1982, it was all departments (and they were shuffled about periodically). The Law of Decentralization then introduced administrative areas reminiscent of the historic provinces (though Normandy was divided into two pieces, and some historic provences were jammed together (Provence, the Alps, the Côte d’Azur). And now we’re going to get some combo regions that are very unlikely to be popular.

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