New phase of administrative decentralisation launched

Download article in original language : FR0304107FFR.DOC

In March 2003, meeting in a special plenary session, the two chambers of the French parliament passed a reform of the Constitution, granting to local authorities (mainly départements and regions) jurisdiction and responsibilities hitherto exercised by the central state. Some current central state civil servants will now become local authority civil servants. Trade unions and state employees have expressed their concerns.

For centuries, the French nation has been built around a highly centralised state, be it a monarchy or a republic. For around 30 years, this organisational and developmental model has been coming under stringent criticism. New territorial administrative bodies have been set up, in particular the regions - 22 metropolitan regions and four overseas départements with regional structures. The political left’s accession to power in 1981 speeded up this change. 'Decentralisation' laws brought in by Gaston Deferre in 1982 democratised and broadened the areas of jurisdiction operated by 'territorial' authorities, especially communes (towns and villages), départements and regions.

During the 1997-2002 parliament, the need to evaluate and adapt this initial decentralisation legislation led to the establishment of a commission on the future of decentralisation chaired by Pierre Mauroy, a former Prime Minister (1981-4), whose 2000 report was aimed at clarifying the options of the Socialist-led government of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

Constitutional reform

The Prime Minister in the new conservative government that came to office in 2002, Jean-Pierre Raffarin - previously chair of the Poitou-Charentes regional authority - has always clearly indicated that he attaches a great deal of importance to taking the decentralisation process further. This was stated as early as his general policy speech on 3 July 2002 (FR0208103F), much to the dismay of some of the deputies in his governing bloc.

To get around the obstacle of the unconstitutionality of further reform, Mr Raffarin chose to amend the Constitution of the Fifth Republic by bringing together the two chambers of the French parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate, in a special plenary session held on 17 March 2003. This resulted in constitutional law no. 2003-276 of 28 March 2003, whose principal provisions are the following:

  • Article 1 of the Constitution stresses that henceforth the organisation of the French Republic is decentralised;
  • Article 37-1 now enables laws and regulations to contain 'experimental' measures;
  • the right of petition is now recognised by the Constitution - ie voters in each territorial unit may call for the relevant authority to discuss particular issues;
  • the possibility of a territorial authority calling a referendum is now open;
  • in relation to transfers of areas of jurisdiction and resources between the central state and territorial authorities, the Constitution states that any transfer of jurisdiction must go hand-in-hand with the provision of resources equivalent to those previously budgeted for the performance of those particular functions; and
  • the 'overseas populations' within the French people are recognised 'in a shared ideal of freedom, equality and brotherhood'.

Four 'organic laws' on the right to conduct experimental schemes, the financial independence of territorial authorities, referenda called at the local level and overseas départements and territories will later complete the constitutional reform. Moreover, ordinary laws will set out the various transfers of responsibilities from the state to the territorial authorities and the planned experimental measures. The first transfers of responsibilities and the first experimental measures are to take effect on 1 January 2004.

Without mentioning it explicitly, the 2003 constitutional reform incorporates the principle of 'subsidiarity' introduced into the EU treaties at Maastricht in 1992 (the current Article 5 of the Treaty establishing the European Community) because Article 72 of the Constitution now states that: 'territorial authorities have the mission of taking decisions in all the areas of jurisdiction that can best be implemented at their level.'

Distribution of responsibilities and allocation of resources

The decentralised administrative levels of French government are still the regions, the départements (96 in metropolitan France and four overseas) and the communes (around 36,000). The government is proposing to simplify and clarify the responsibilities of each of these levels, with the key issue being the transfer of EUR 10 billion of spending and 150,000 central state civil servants to the territorial authorities. The Raffarin government’s idea is to base policy on two 'pairs', with the départements and the communes taking responsibility for the management of public services, and the central state and the regions addressing strategy issues.

According to the blueprint outlined by the Prime Minister in a speech introducing the whole decentralisation process in Rouen on 1 March 2003, the regions will now take over all matters linked to economic development, the responsibility for large-scale infrastructure such as ports, airports, canals etc, along with tourism, support to business, and everything to do with vocational training, with all the relevant instrument to be transferred to them. Central government will be refocused on employment policy. The role of the départements as a provider of social assistance and welfare subsidies will be assisted, particularly in terms of the management of the 'minimum integration income' (Revenu minimum d’insertion, RMI). Moreover, some infrastructure that is run by central government will in future be managed by the départements, especially roads. Lastly, the management of certain technical staff in the national education system will also be the départements' responsibility. The communes and clusters of communes are supposed to take over local housing policy and various pilot projects in the fields of education, health, the management of collèges and lycées (secondary schools) and legal protection for young people. Additionally, the responsibility for management of European Structural Funds will be transferred to this level before possibly being kept there indefinitely.

Roughly 150,000 state employees will become part of the local authority civil service, of whom 110,000 are technical and maintenance staff employed by the Ministry of Education, and 25,000 are Ministry of Roads and Infrastructure employees.

The transfers of responsibilities and staff will be accompanied by taxation transfers. The départements and the regions should thus receive a share of the 'domestic tax on oil-based products' (Taxe intérieure sur les produits pétroliers, TIPP), and have the option to alter its rate in the long-term.

Anxiety and responses

The government made it a point to reassure central state employees affected by the transfer to territorial authorities that they will retain the favourable conditions of their current civil service employment status. However, since early March 2003, the Ministry of Roads and Infrastructure branches of the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) and the General Confederation of Labour-Force Ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail-Force Ouvrière, CGT-FO) have been calling for the mobilisation of Ministry staff in order to protest against the government’s decentralisation plan, and for participation in a national demonstration on 3 April 2003 already planned in protest over pensions reform.

On 18 March 2003, the main education trade unions and parents’ associations called for a strike against the government’s decentralisation measures affecting Ministry of Education employees, after other action had occurred in this sector over recent months (FR0303101N).

Though decentralisation currently affects very specific categories of staff, the unions fear that these transfers toward territorial authorities and the trend towards regionalisation will be applied to others in the future. Already, the Minister for Health, Jean-François Mattei, has stated that he does 'not envisage that the major trend toward decentralisation now gripping the state could leave sickness insurance untouched'.

More generally, civil service employees and unions feel threatened, with the issue of pensions reform on one side (FR0302108F) and the converging themes of the modernisation of the state and of the public service, and of decentralisation, on the other. High levels of mobilisation seen in the public sector on 3 April 2003 should also be understood in this light.


The recent constitutional reform and the Prime Minister’s proposals have bolstered a process begun 30 years ago, consisting first in the dispersal of government offices and then decentralisation, and lastly a genuine devolution of responsibilities. Distancing itself from the formerly claimed unity of the people and the absolute equality of French citizens 'from Lille to Cayenne', the constitutional reform now recognises the various specific 'populations' within the French people, and territorial authorities are acknowledged as being better suited to holding jurisdiction over decisions to be implemented at their own level.

This reform does not, any more than Gaston Deferre’s in 1982, tackle the juxtaposition and even the accumulation of local authorities working within the same area, especially in the overseas départements. The retention of the départements - the creation of the French Revolution and the First Empire - and the regions - a more recent addition - with extended areas of responsibility for both is not in itself a guarantee of efficiency and transparency in government action.

Finally, there remains substantial work to be done in terms of detailing and completing both the sharing of costs and resources between the various authorities over the entire country, and the monitoring of public spending. (Maurice Braud, IRES)

Useful? Interesting? Tell us what you think. Hide comments

Eurofound welcomes feedback and updates on this regulation

Add new comment