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Hollande redraws France’s regions – what will it mean?

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French President François Hollande promises to cut costs with his territorial reform Reuters/Laurent Dubrule

President François Hollande is to redraw the administrative map of France. But, while no-one will admit to opposing the change, turf wars are raging and there are doubts about whether promised savings will materialise. Not easy for outsiders to understand – so what’s it all about?


“I propose to reduce the number of regions from 22 to XX,” read Hollande’s handout to the regional press on Monday 2 June. By the end of the day the figure 14 had replaced the Xs, clearly after some last-minute wrangling with ministers defending their local fiefdoms.

Interactive map of France

An earlier proposal had been to have just 12 in metropolitan France but Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a long-time Hollande buddy, managed to keep Brittany, in the west, out of a marriage with the Pays de la Loire, while Lille mayor Martine Aubry, a doughty Socialist Party faction fighter, kept Nord-Pas de Calais, in the east, free of the clutches of Picardy and Champagne-Ardennes.

The last-minute decision, giving the impression that it had been worked out on the back of an envelope in between fraught phone calls, did nothing to improve Hollande’s reputation for indecisiveness.

France has a complex administrative structure, that can seem exotic to the foreign eye, in a hierarchy of president, central government, regions, departments, communes (local councils) and, in cities, arrondissements, all with elected bodies and employees.

In fact, there are currently 27 regions, if you count the overseas territories that are part of France despite being on the other side of the world.

Hollande’s plan will reduce the number to 19 – 13 in mainland France, Corsica in the Mediterranean, Guiana in Latin America, Guadeloupe and Martinique in the Caribbean and Mayotte and Réunion in the Indian Ocean.

So the changes are in metropolitan France and, for the most part, they’re not exactly earthshaking.

The new French regions

Seven – Ile de France, Brittany, Pays de la Loire, Aquitaine, Nord-Pas de Calais, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Corsica – will not change.

Corsica, an island of only 8,680km² and a population 319,690 where nationalist sentiment has to be contended with, will be the smallest, unless you count Guyana, which has a population of only 200,000 but a surface area of 83,534km², and Mayotte, with 200,000 people living in just 376km².

The most dramatic change will be the creation of a megaregion in the sparsely populated middle of the country, fusing the mountainous Centre and Limousin with coastal Poitou-Charentes to create a region nearly as big as Guiana – at 81,903m² - with 5.1 million inhabitants.

Apart from that, Basse Normandie and Haute Normandie will become one, Picardie will be fused with Champagne-Ardenne, Alsace with Lorraine, Burgundy with Franche-Comté, Rhône-Alpes with Auvergne and Midi-Pyrénées with Languedoc-Roussillon.

Not everybody’s happy.

Hollande’s former partner, Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal, apparently wanted her home base of Poitou-Charentes to be joined with Pays de la Loire, while former prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault wanted Pays de la Loire, whose main city, Nantes, he used to be mayor of, to be joined with Brittany, a demand supported by Breton nationalists in the bonnets rouges protest movement.

The region around Paris, Ile de France, will remain France’s wealthiest region by a long chalk, with annual GDP of 612.3 billion euros compared to its nearest competitor, Rhône-Alpes-Auvergne’s 231 billion, but the gap with others will be reduced and France will have 12 regions in the European top 50, all without raising anybody’s wages.

That’s important because encouraging investment and developing the economy is the regions’ principal task today and will remain so.

They will be responsible for the local economy, employment, transport, secondary education and town and country planning.

“It’s a change to try to improve France’s competitiveness and attractiveness,” says political scientist Olivier Rouquan.

“It is important for territorial marketing and important in the European context for regions to be more powerful, to have bigger populations, more companies and more taxes,” he told RFI. “But changing the size of regions is not a major change. That is not the case for departments. Getting rid of epartments would be a bigger change.”

Under the plan the conseils généraux that run the departments will be phased out between now and 2020, removing one layer of administration and, in theory, reducing costs.

The president has refrained from putting a figure on possible savings but enthusiastic ministers have suggested it could 10-25 billion euros.

“But we have no accurate information on whether or not that will happen,” comments Rouquan. “We don’t know if suppressing departments will reduce taxes in France. We have no certitude on that.”

French citizens, many of whom are sentimentally attached to their departments’ postal codes, can rest assured that they will remain “constituencies of reference” with some local administration, such as prefects in charge of law and order, remaining at departmental level.