French territorial reform: bigger regions, greater EU influence

  
France
French President François Hollande has announced sweeping territorial reforms. [Celso Flores/Flickr]

Territorial reforms announced by François Hollande should give French regions greater weight in European politics. They are currently struggling to compete with their counterparts in Germany, Italy and Spain. EurActiv France reports.

"France is a centralised country" stated Alain Rousset, President of the French Regions Association.

However, this might not be true for long. French regions are set to step up onto the European stage thanks to territorial reforms announced on June 3 by the French President, François Hollande.

Territorial reforms have been on the cards for years. They plan to reduce the number of regions and reinforce their competencies.

Redrawing territorial borders will give French regions a greater voice in European politics. "In order to reinforce them, I propose reducing their number from 22 to 14. They will then be of European size and capable of building territorial strategies," stated François Hollande in a statement announcing the proposal.

>> Read the opinion piece by François Hollande: 'Reforming the regions in order to reform France' [FR]

Some regions will be merged together in order to reduce their number from 22 to 14, such as the Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne or Haute and Basse-Normandy. Others, like the Ile-De-France, will remain unchanged. Departmental influence will be reduced in order to upgrade regional powers.

"In the future, these big regions [...] will be the only bodies capable of supporting businesses, implementing policies on training and employment, and intervening in transports, including regional trains and buses, roads, airports and ports. They will also manage secondary-level education, community planning and large infrastructures," Hollande wrote.

The redrawing will increase the size of French regions, which are generally smaller than regions in other EU member states. Four French regions will become part of the 50 most-populated regions in Europe, including Champagne-Picardie, Normandy, Alsace-Lorraine and the Centre-Poitou-Limousin.

'European size'

Although territorial reforms will be problematic in France, it is considered good news on a European level. French centralism sometimes hinders French regions in their relations with other European regions.

"If we compare ourselves to other EU regions, it is obvious that we are far behind. Regional spending per capita in France is €395 per year. The average spending in Europe is between €3,000 and €4,700," said Alain Rousset.

"We are 7th in Europe's economic ranking, but we spend ten to twelve times less per capita than the large regions that we work with in Germany, Italy and Spain," stated Jean-Jack Queyranne, President of the Rhône-Alpes Regional Council.

In some regional representations in Brussels, the reforms are seen as a way of "securing similar capabilities to other large regions in Germany, Italy and Spain."

However, the territorial reshuffle could cause other problems. European funds have already been divided up for the 2014-2020 period. This will have to be reviewed in light of recent developments in France.

Other EU-specific grants, such as the Youth Employment Initiative, which is granted to regions experiencing youth unemployment rates above 25% and on young people (NEETs) aged 15-24. Ten French regions were supposed to receive this grant between 2014 and 2015, but the fusion of French regions will no doubt affect this number.

Dominant framework in the EU

The French territorial reforms are part of a larger European trend. According to a study by the Thomas More Institute, regions are the "frame of reference" of territorial organisations in 12 EU member states that they studied.

"Encouraged by the European Union, regions will become the frame of reference for European regional politics, aiming to promote the development of competitive territories whilst maintaining their cohesion," stated the report.

A Dexia study claims that the economic crisis has stepped up European movements for territorial reforms. "We can see a global effort to reinforce regions, either by increasing competencies and means of existing regions, or by creating or experimenting with new regional levels", the report outlines.

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