French reforms enhance the power of Local Government

Professor Jean Claude Lugan from the University of Toulouse in France is head of Social Sciences, and since 1977 has been Deputy Mayor of Figeac. As a visiting Professor at Swinburne Institute for Social Research, he recently delivered a paper titled ‘The New face of Local Government in France’.

He said despite political and administrative domination of the central state, traditionally Local Government in France is viewed very highly by the public.

“Even in these days of political disenchantment, public opinion polls show that, of all political mandates, the Mayor is most highly regarded, and it is generally agreed that elected local representatives perform the most useful roles,” Professor Lugan said.

He said Local Government or ‘communes’ remain the traditional preserve of local community cooperation and the main prize after Presidential elections.

At the time of the French Revolution in 1793 there were 44,000 communes based largely on the old parishes, in 2001 there are still a massive 36,000 (more than the total for all other European Union members). Some 80 percent of communes have less than 1,000 residents.

“All attempts to amalgamate communes have failed,” Professor Lugan said. “Thus, for 200 years the communes and state have been the two fundamental decision making poles on the French political map.”

If the strength of French Local Government was ever in doubt, in a nation of 61 million, there are no fewer than 500,000 elected members and some one million employees working at this level.

As encouragement, specific grants from the central government to ‘amalgamated’ communes has brought about some change in recent years. There are two forms of amalgamations possible – for the urban areas, communities of agglomerations, and in the rural areas communities of communes.

However, as local identity and representation remains as strong as ever in France, individual communes that have agreed to ‘amalgamate’ retain their own elected members and local administrations.

Professor Lugan said that the reform process has simply created new levels in Local Government, releasing new energies and expanding local initiatives.

“The increased number of levels and their growing powers result in projects being financed from different sources leading to constant negotiations between representatives in local, national and European spheres,” he said. “In a way problems tend to be addressed more at the local than the national level. The state is no longer the absolute centralised regulator.

“This process of amalgamation of communes, more than any other factor, is leading the way towards an increasingly autonomous Local Government administration and a new delineation of Local Government power.”