He has set up a review of the local government machinery in France, with a view to rationalisation of the system. The former Prime Minister of France, Édouard Balladur, has been tasked by the President with coming up with some proposals ‘to simplify and economise’ the structure. Given that the words 'France' and 'simplicity' in the same sentence might normally be considered an unusual pairing, we await his recommendations with interest. He certainly has a huge task. France has three main levels of local government – communes, départements and régions - all of whom are strong centres of overlapping political and administrative power. The administrative structure is matched by an equally baffling system of local government finance. As a result, procedures can be painstakingly slow, and an Herculean effort is often required to bring together the constituent elements of the structure to realise major projects. President Sarkozy acknowledges the need to tackle the funding of local government as well as its structure. 'Local government finance has become archaic and unfair, and the business tax (taxe professionnelle) harms the French economy', he insisted. The quality of local services came in for a stinging attack last year from the French Ombudsman, Jean-Paul Delevoye, who took the councils to task for being too pre-occupied with budgetary and economic matters, and for delays in responding to enquiries, which sometimes resulted in no response at all! ‘Silence is often also a means of not fulfilling their obligations', he scolded. The Prime Minister François Fillon, and leader of the UMP majority party, Jean-François Copé, have already made clear their own preference in the proposed reorganisation, which would be for abolition of the French département, an administrative area equivalent to a county structure in the United Kingdom. The 100 départements of France are often named after a famous river or other important physical feature in the area. Thus, they include names such as Dordogne, Rhône, Vendée, Loire, and Calvados. Perhaps for this reason, the départements are not only a seat of political power and administrative responsibility, but they also have an important historical and cultural tradition. Accordingly, it is likely that there will be strong political resistance to their abolition, with the prospect that, even if they lose their administrative role, they will be retained as geographic areas. An illustration of how strong is the affinity with departments arose recently when the French government had to abandon plans to abolish departmental numbers from the registration plates of new cars. There was a huge row about this proposal, so a messy compromise has had to be cobbled together. The departments may also be retained as the continuing seat of central government power in the provinces, for the préfectures are located in each département. There seems no suggestion at this stage that they will also be abolished, or relocated to the regions. It is likely to be the regions who will be the main beneficiaries of any reorganisation, with most of the responsibilities of the départements transferred to them. Indeed, there is also talk of some reorganisation at a regional level, with the merger of some regions. Top of the list of candidates is the merger of Basse-Normandie and Haute-Normandie. There is also the possibility that Auvergne may be abolished and split between Rhône-Alpes and Midi-Pyrénées. Likewise, the merger of Limousin with Poitou-Charentes has been mooted.
There are also likely to be implications for the communes of France, who represent the lowest tier of local government in the country. For a decade or more now, successive French governments have been seeking to encourage many smaller communes to merge, or at least work more collaboratively. Despite the obvious administrative logic of greater collaboration, to say nothing of the financial incentives the government have created for it, many local mayors have been slow at letting go of the reins of power. Nevertheless, progress has been made, with a complex array of inter-communal structures now in place. Around 90% of the communes in France are part of an inter-communal grouping for the delivery of one or more services. Thus, whilst some of these inter-communal structures only have a single function, such as rubbish disposal, economic development, planning or water management, others have assumed much of the responsibilities of their constituent members. It is a confusing picture, with many commentators concerned about the complexity of these new structures and the lack of democratic transparency. That is one reason why, separately from the local government review, the government have announced plans to reinforce inter-communal working arrangements. Changes will also be introduced into democratic procedures, so that councillors sitting on these structures are directly elected by universal suffrage. It is the slow death of the small commune as an administrative entity. Whether it results in an improvement in the quality of services, or merely another means to save costs remains to be seen.