The 2003 revision of the French Constitution1added to article 1, which defines the Characters of the Republic, the following sentence: «It shall be organised on a decentralised basis». Decentralisation («décentralisation») has been the French political concept for local self-government since the 19th century. Today, the French model is the product of a long history and not of some precise doctrine. In the feudal monarchy, each province had its own legal status and the territorial power was in the hands of landlords, the Catholic Church and the agents of the king. Some cities, gratified by special liberties, were ruled by an oligarchic government.
Immediately after the 1789 Revolution abolished this system2, the National Assembly decided on a new territorial organisation that has shaped France until today. An Act of 22/12/1789 created the municipalities (communes in French) and «departments» (départements) with an identical status all over the country. Each parish - more than 40,0003around the country - could become a municipality with elected organs and a public status. The «department» was designed to be the level for performing general State administration by elected authorities under the control of ministries. But times were troubled and a new order was established by Napoleon Bonaparte’s government by the law of 17/2/1800 «concerning the division of the territory of the Republic and the administration». It was called «the administrative constitution of France» because its main provisions and general logic remained in force for nearly two centuries. It created the préfet, the general administrator of the department, and a deliberative
assembly, the conseil général4; but all authorities were appointed by the central government or its representatives.
Decentralisation progressed by strengthening elected assemblies and creating a political awareness of municipal and departmental communities. An 1833 Act decided that municipal and departmental councils should be elected. Departments suffered a legal transformation by law of 10/5/1838, which created its dual nature: on the one hand, departments were characterised as districts for State administrations; and, on the other hand, local self-government units, in both cases under the authority of the préfet. The law of 10/8/1871 extended the powers of its assembly. So did the «great municipal law» of 5/4/1884 for municipalities, as their council was granted the power «to decide on all municipal affairs». This was interpreted by the Administrative Court as a general clause of competence, allowing the councils to act in any domain of local interest.
The 1946 Constitution had a special section on local self-government that announced important reforms … which were never performed. Likewise, the 1958 Constitution recognized municipalities (communes) and departments (départements) as collectivités territoriales with a guarantee of autonomous administration by elected councils (art. 72). A law of 31st December 1970 extended the «municipal liberties», reduced the control by the préfets, especially on budgets, and modernised the management rules. Later, an Act of 16 July 1971 expressed a national strategy to reduce dramatically the number of municipalities. In spite of supplementary grants for amalgamation, the number of local entities was only reduced from 38600 to 36600 (several merged municipalities divorced afterwards!). This failure had a long lasting impact. It showed that a systematic process of amalgamation was impossible in France because a majority of politicians and citizens opposed it.
Special attention must be given to the «big bang» reform of 1982. In May and June 1981, a socialist President of the Republic and a socialist majority at the National Assembly were elected for the first time since the foundation of the 5th Republic in 1958. The central cabinet, run by men with long experience in local administration, decided to widen the decentralization reform that had being discussed in Parliament since 1978. Despite a strong opposition of the Senate, the Act of 2/3/1982 «on the rights and liberties of the municipalities (communes), departments and regions» enforced dramatic changes. It was followed by tens of special statutes and hundreds of decrees, rapidly accepted by all political parties and implemented with a real consensus. The most symbolic and decisive innovation was to transfer the executive powers in the department and the region from the prefect to the president of the said department and region, who would be elected by the assembly. This needed to separate the services of the préfecture (the prefect office) between those staying under the authority of the prefect and assuming State powers and those placed under the
authority of the President of the department or region. It was done rather smoothly by contract, some questions being yet brought to the administrative Courts. Therefore, two separate administrations work side by side in the territorial division called «department» or «region». This can be confusing, even for French citizens, and people may consider, by mistake, that the «Napoleonic model» is still alive. The control was deeply modified as will be explained later. Other statutes, since 1983, transferred competences, services and equipment from State administrations to departments and regions. This extended the budgets, as new compensation resources were allocated.
Decentralisation expanded also by addition of new institutions. Single purpose inter-municipal cooperation entities were allowed in 1890; in 1959 a new model of «multi-purpose municipal unions» was introduced. Successive statutes (1967, 1992, and 1999) established inter-municipal communities with their own fiscal power and strong competences.
As for Regions, they were first created as State districts in 1959 for a better coordination of national policies. In 1969, a project for autonomous regions was rejected by referendum and caused the dismissal of President de Gaulle. Legal entities with just small financial competences, established in 1972, became territorial communities in two steps, 1982 (grant of general competence and establishment of a political executive) and 1986 (inception of elected assemblies). Communities and regions were meant to compensate the small size of communes and departments.5These new tiers with a more pertinent size brought economy of scale in the considered competences, but also new costs and budget expansion. Nowadays, the financial crisis obliges to slower public expenses and there is a new trend for amalgamation. Therefore, the Act of 16/12/2010, on the reform of local government, includes provisions to facilitate the merger process at each level of government, and between a region and its departments, in order to simplify the local self-government organisation and make it more cost-effective. However, this needs consensus of the politicians, who don’t show much enthusiasm!
Political doctrines had some influence at given periods, but there is no steady relation between political parties and the shape of local self-government. Right and left have been centralists or decentralists, depending on the context. There are so many stakes when deciding on territorial organisation that there is never a spontaneous consensus inside any party. Laws are the outcome of rough bargaining and the final compromise is remote from any model somebody had in mind.6It is important to note that each level of local self-government has developed at a different pace. The municipal power has roots in ancient times and was continuously strengthened since 1789. Departments, created the same year,
were only partially decentralised until 1982. Regions have full political and administrative autonomy only since 1986. So, local self-government was synonym of municipal autonomy and the «commune» (the municipality) was a revolutionary myth opposed to State power in 1791-1793, 1848 and 1871. Most municipalities are indeed weak because of modest human resources and financial dependency from the State. Furthermore, different attempts for amalgamation failed all along history (in 1795, 1942, 1947 and 1971). However, a total figure of 36,791 mayors and 519,417 councillors are an extremely influential political group. The paradox is that local self-government has been more developed on its political side than in the legal provisions.
For what concerns hot current issues, it can be said that French local governments are not hit too violently by the general crisis, thanks to protective mechanisms. However, their situation becomes more and more tense, especially in departments which have no flexible resources and rising social expenses. There are two major challenges for the next years. The first one is to restructure the local system...