35,000 municipalities and more than 500,000 local elected representatives. 500 mayoral signatures of support required for each presidential hopeful. For outside observers, these vertiginous numbers may come as a surprise. A legacy of the French Revolution, this system has undergone many reforms over the years, with the creation of multiple political and administrative layers that are often criticized for their costliness, tangle of responsibilities, and questionable effectiveness. With presidentialism clearly dominating today’s institutional system in France, what is the role of these many local authorities, and how much influence do they wield?
The French “territorial millefeuille” (a multi-layered dessert to which the system of local government is often compared) is the result of a long history of relations between political and social forces, sometimes placing closeness to the people at the heart of institutional reform, and other times emphasizing a reduction in public spending. Broadly speaking, the Left has favoured decentralization and devolution of local government with a strong attachment to the municipal level, while the Right has pushed for the strengthening of centralized state control and the creation of superstructures (communities of municipalities, metropolises, etc.) justified by the need to simplify and pool resources.
Elsa Pradier Dimicoli is a journalist specializing in French local authorities. She has a degree in political science and public law and has worked with local public stakeholders for over 15 years.
The Municipality as the Base
34,968. This was the number of municipalities in France in 2020. They constitute the country’s oldest and smallest institutional level. They are headed up by a municipal council composed of councillors elected every six years by direct universal suffrage. The council elects a mayor from among its members who represents the responsibilities of local government. As the basic unit of French public life, the municipalities are essential components of the political system. The term first appeared in the French Revolution when, on 14 December 1789, the constituent assembly of the Estates General created this new administrative division based on the borders of former parishes, villages or communities. Births, marriages and deaths were already being recorded at the town hall as early as 1792, and this is still the case today.
The municipality remains the reference level of interaction between citizens and politics. For French voters, the primary political representative remains the municipal councillor and in particular the mayor. A local figure, this elected representative enjoys significant popularity, contrasting notably with French distrust of the national political class. In 2019, 76 percent of respondents distrusted MPs and senators. Conversely, another study conducted in 2020 shows that 68 percent of respondents believe that “their mayor is the elected representative who best understands their concerns”.
The 1980s Decentralization Movement
The municipalities are still fundamental to the organization of France today, but their role has been changed. In the Constitution of 4 October 1958, France is stated as being an indivisible Republic with a decentralized structure (Article 1). Alongside central government, the country is therefore administered by local authorities. Their status is also set down in the Constitution (Article 72), and their powers are detailed by the legislator. This clarification regarding the decentralized structure of France is recent, having been introduced by the Constitutional Act of 28 March 2003. This text was presented by its authors at the time as “Act II of French decentralization”; Act 1 being associated with the major decentralization acts of the 1980s, carried out under the presidency of François Mitterrand.
From 1982, the Defferre Acts — named after the socialist Minister of the Interior and Decentralization who brought them before Parliament — changed the structure of power between the State, municipalities, departments and regions (created on that date). In the new balance proposed by these acts, local authorities were freed from supervision by the State (Act of 2 March 1982) to exercise their power independently. Prior to these texts, decisions taken by local authorities were subject to oversight by the Prefect before being applied, but this all changed with the Defferre Acts. Legal instruments no longer needed to be reviewed in advance. They become enforceable as soon as they were published. They could only be challenged before the administrative courts. This change marked a revolution in French administrative law and enhanced the legitimacy and power of local authorities. Indeed, decisions taken by local government could now be applied immediately. The State no longer had the ability to block them, except by taking legal action. The supervision hanging over the heads of local decision-makers was removed.
The powers of municipalities, departments and regions were also expanded. The State, in this way, transferred several responsibilities to local authorities including, in 1983, urban planning, social action, vocational training and management of secondary schools. It was highly ambitious, as illustrated by Gaston Defferre's speech at the congress of the Association of French Mayors on 26 October 1982: “We want to interrupt the centuries-old course of centralization and immediately translate a new balance of power into reality,” he stated. The movement launched in the 1980s did not end there. Between 1982 and 1986, this foundation was completed with 25 additional acts. France equipped itself with a legislative arsenal aimed at bringing about real local power alongside the national institutions.
Local Authorities: Victims of Austerity
However, thirty years after its establishment, this architecture was being questioned on the right wing of the political spectrum. At issue: seeking savings in government budgets. In 2010, for example, former liberal prime minister Édouard Balladur was appointed by then-President Nicolas Sarkozy, tasked with proposing an overhaul of the local architecture. His ambition was clear: “streamlining” at the local level to achieve savings in public spending.
France was at the time still suffering from the after-effects of the global subprime economic and financial crisis. The criteria of the European Stability and Growth Pact (the eurozone austerity instrument par excellence) muzzled public projects by prohibiting states from exceeding a public deficit of 3 percent. The work of Édouard Balladur culminated in the Act of 16 December 2010, which reformed local authorities. Coupled with a reform of local taxation in favour of companies, the main consequence of this change of course was to be the financial strangulation of municipalities and departments, and therefore a calamitous reduction in local services and social assistance for French citizens on the lowest incomes.
Its authors’ ambitions for a global overhaul were to be hampered in 2012 by the arrival of the Socialist François Hollande as President of the Republic. However, this text would start a new movement: one involving another “streamlining” at the municipality level through the grouping together of municipalities within “intermunicipalities”. In 2014, the Modernization of Territorial Public Action and Affirmation of Metropolises Act (MAPTAM) created Metropolises, a highly-integrated intermunicipal level in urban areas. In 2015, the Act on the New Territorial Organization of the Republic (NOTRE) enhanced the intermunicipal level and redistributed powers between local authorities.
What Exactly Is Intermunicipality?
Intermunicipality is in fact an ancient phenomenon in France. It evokes the union of several municipalities to provide a service to their collective populations. While a trace of this type of collaboration can be seen as early as the Act of 5 April 1884, the vision changed in contemporary times. Bit by bit, the idea of a voluntary union of municipalities for specific projects gave way to the creation of a new specific entity with a budget, territory, powers and an administration.
The framework was first laid down by the Act of 12 July 1990. Three levels of communities were established according to the number of inhabitants: community of municipalities, urban area community and urban community. Metropolises were then added. Each category has more or less extensive powers, granted to it by law. Member municipalities may also decide to freely delegate powers. The intermunicipality is governed by the representatives of the municipalities.
Initially, its operation was intended to be based on consensus. Elected representatives from different political sides could agree on a common interest: the promotion of their territory. However, development of the intermunicipality has gradually moved towards a pooling of the financial resources of the municipalities. The increase in power of these levels was concurrent with a decrease in allocations paid by the State. In this way, management choices gradually become politicized. Should a public service be delegated to the private sector? Should cultural policies be supported when there is a shortage of credit? Should solidarity be reduced to simply providing assistance to the poorest? The more the intermunicipalities asserted themselves financially in local projects, the more the political orientations of these levels would guide decisions.
In 2010, with the Act on the Reform of Local Authorities, it became mandatory for each municipality to incorporate an intermunicipal grouping. Prefects were also responsible for imposing these groupings within departmental intermunicipal cooperation arrangements that they were to develop in conjunction with local elected representatives. In the event of disagreement, it was the responsibility of the State representative to decide. This situation gave rise to significant local battles between certain municipalities that were reluctant to incorporate intermunicipal groupings. In the event of political divergence between the intermunicipality and the municipality, there are significant consequences for the conduct of local policies, because substantial powers are attributed to the intermunicipalities. Their finances consist of a portion of municipal budgets, an allocation from the State and sometimes local taxes. For example, communities of municipalities are now responsible for issues of economic development, waste collection and treatment, sanitation and water.
This “streamlined” vision of the intermunicipality is such that its supporters, who tend to be on the right of the political spectrum — but also include some social democrats — wanted to give it greater political legitimacy. According to them, intermunicipal representatives make major decisions in spite of not being elected, instead only representing their municipalities within the Community Council. To provide the intermunicipalities with the same authority as municipalities, and therefore justify undermining the municipalities, the intermunicipalities had to also derive their legitimacy from direct universal suffrage. Thus, since the Act of 17 May 2013, community councillors, previously appointed by the municipal councils, are elected by universal suffrage, via fléchage, a type of voting method in which the councillors of member municipalities and communities are elected on the same ballot. In practical terms, voters must choose the candidates from the municipal list that they want to see elected at the intermunicipal level.
A filial link remains between the two levels, leaving the voter faced with a complex system. Voters continue to view these two levels differently. While municipalities, a historical reference point for local policies, are well recognized by inhabitants, the intermunicipality remains a technical level, although it is familiar to users of public services. Thus, in 2018, an IFOP survey indicated that “59 percent of French people feel they are insufficiently informed and want to know more about their intermunicipality”. 56 percent of respondents, moreover, believed that the intermunicipality tends to distance elected representatives from citizens. Furthermore, during elections, candidates do not mention their intermunicipal programmes. The question arises as to the place of citizens in this new architecture.
Municipality vs. Intermunicipality: The Debate Isn’t Over
The French local political system today thus balances somewhere between the two, with weakened yet still popular municipalities, on the one hand, and enhanced intermunicipalities on the other.
There exists a major debate on the purposes to be given to these supra-municipal levels. On the Right can be found supporters of the weakening of municipalities through a reduced number of strong intermunicipalities, with the goal to reduce public spending — particularly the number of civil servants — and privatize public services for the benefit of the private sector. On the Left we find advocates of an intermunicipality project that represents and results from the free association of the municipalities.
This is a fall-back position, because elected representatives on the Left, who were initially strongly opposed to the “pooling” of resources in intermunicipalities, were obliged to accept the change imposed by right-wing legislators. However, there also exists in left-wing cities another way of resisting re-centralization: experiments in local democracy aimed at developing proximity to residents: participatory budgets, neighbourhood councils, local public service centres, etc., which attempt to develop a participatory model that strengthens the municipal level.
The five-year presidential term of Emmanuel Macron, which is drawing to a close, has not marked a new stage in the decentralization process. The President called for more pragmatic project management, with public services being more readily entrusted to private companies. However, the health crisis has shown the urgent need to create a strong municipal network. Management of vaccinations, health centres, testing operations, support for vulnerable populations, keeping schools open, etc. over the past two years these responsibilities have largely been shouldered by the municipalities.
The economic recovery raises fears of a return of austerity policies in which local authorities will have to “pay their share of public debt”. If the next presidential election were to confirm this direction, there is a strong fear that further tightening will endanger local public services with harmful consequences for the people of France.