Council reforms could be can of worms for Sarkozy


THE FRENCH call the structure of their government a millefeuille, after the dessert made of layered pastry and cream.

At the base there are 36,000 municipalities, followed by 4,032 cantons, which are subdivisions of 100 departments that comprise 25 regions. Above all looms the all-powerful, highly centralised and bloated government in Paris.

Within this labyrinth of overlapping prerogatives and responsibilities, it is often impossible to fathom who does what.

Last September, French president Nicolas Sarkozy said: “The time has come to pose the question of levels of local government, for the intertwined responsibilities are a source of inefficiency and supplementary costs.”

The following month, he appointed former prime minister Édouard Balladur, who was his political mentor in the 1990s, to head an 11-man commission to simplify the territorial structure.

Mid-economic crisis, Mr Balladur’s delivery of his report to the Élysée Palace yesterday appeared likely to open another can of worms for the French president.

To prevent the Balladur report provoking further disgruntlement, Messrs Balladur and Sarkozy softened the contents of the original version, emphasising the need for “consensus” on territorial reform.

They rejected suggestions that departments – roughly the equivalent of an English district or an American county – be done away with. And they promised that a proposal to merge some of France’s regions, reducing their number from 25 to 15, would be achieved on a voluntary basis.

To forestall an outcry, the names of regions were removed from the final document. Last week, Mr Balladur let slip that he favoured merging the Loire-Atlantique region with Brittany.

The socialist mayor of Nantes, the capital of Loire-Atlantique, protested so vigorously that the proposal was dropped.

Other proposed mergers, also airbrushed from the report, involved upper and lower Normandy, Limousin and Auvergne, and splitting Ségolène Royal’s Poitou-Charentes region between Aquitaine and Limousin.

Some of the most bitter opposition came from the people of Picardy, 70,000 of whom signed an internet petition objecting to the idea of dividing their poor region between the Île-de-France and Pas de Calais.

Xavier Bertrand, the minister for labour and social affairs, chose his native Picardy over loyalty to Mr Sarkozy, demanding a referendum on the dismemberment of his region.

The underlying philosophy is to cut back on local government. “Should France continue to live with 36,000 full-blown municipalities, when there aren’t even 10,000 in neighbouring countries?” Mr Balladur asked in an interview with Le Monde.

The least controversial measure is to accord the status of métropolesto France’s 11 largest cities after Paris. Thus Lyon, Lille, Marseille, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Nantes, Nice, Strasbourg, Rouen, Toulon and Rennes would assume some of the responsibilities currently held by the departments to which they belong.

The commission’s proposal to create a new local government for “greater Paris”, however, which would annex the surrounding departments of Hauts-de-Seine, Seine-Saint-Denis and Val-de-Marne, is strongly opposed by the socialists, in particular by Paris mayor Bertrand Delanoë.