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The French Brief: There is More to France than Paris

BLOG - 9 June 2021

On June 21 and 28, all French voters will be called to the voting booth to elect their local officials, both in the "Régions" and the "Départements". These two may sound similar, but they point to a particularly French take on geographic administration. The latter are a heritage of the French Revolution, dividing the French territory in around 100 entities. The Regions, on the other hand, are much more recent, and have been lacking visibility and legitimacy in a country that is still obsessed with unity and reluctant to divide national sovereignty into what could be seen as a revival of feudalism. But since an important reform implemented by former president François Hollande in 2015, the Regions have been given new responsibilities and more autonomy in various areas, including professional training for the unemployed, economic development, the construction and management of high schools, or public transportation management. Moreover, some of them have been merged, reducing their number from 22 to 13, thus creating very large, and sometimes rather artificial geographical and administrative areas, like "Nouvelle-Aquitaine", "Grand Est" or "Hauts-de-France". 

Six years after the reform, it is time to evaluate how these regions have performed, individually and collectively. This is fundamental to helping citizens make an informed choice when they cast their vote. Unfortunately, the electoral debate has been much more focused on political betting, with regional elections seen as a rehearsal for the presidential election coming up in 2022. Some of the candidates asking to be at the helm of the regions are possible contenders for the Center-Right, like Xavier Bertrand in Hauts-de-France (in Northern France), Valérie Pécresse in Île-de-France (the Paris region), or Laurent Wauquiez in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes (around Lyon). With a significant risk of a victory for Marine Le Pen’s party in several Regions, other parties have been struggling to define their strategies. But very little attention has been paid to the Regions themselves, and to their achievements, or lack thereof, during the last mandate that began in 2015. 

To contribute to the discussion on the policies themselves, Institut Montaigne has launched an ambitious study. More than 150 interviews have been carried out with local and national actors, acting inside or in partnership with the Regions, from both the public or the private sector. The aim has been to better understand what these Regions are trying to achieve, how they can redefine the relationship between political institutions and civil society, and contribute to resolving the crisis of trust that is crippling French democracy and threatening the stability of its political system. The study reveals a whole range of initiatives and innovative policies, and a political energy that could fuel a reengineering of a French political and administrative system. 

A New Breed of Civil Servants

For decades, the discussion around the French State has been focused on a single institution, the prestigious École Normale d’Administration (National School of Administration). ENA is one of many Grandes Écoles, France’s prestigious network of elite higher education institutions that operate separately from universities. Its alumni have a quasi monopoly on all the leading positions inside the public administration, and an impressive network inside the big companies based in Paris, many of whom have strong ties with the State. On April 8, Emmanuel Macron shook Paris by announcing the closure of the monolith. Thus began the transformation of how French public officials are to be recruited and trained, or even the perception of who a civil servant can be. However, the new model he wants to put in place remains yet unclear. 

What our study reveals is how the Regions are themselves inventing a new model for their own senior Civil Servants.They have put in place a flexible recruitment system that enables the president of each Region to tap into a diverse pool of talents, from the State itself, from other local bodies, from the Private sector, or even from Academia. In a country where the barriers between the various breeds of civil servants are often insurmountable, the Regions have become a place where experienced and skilled public leaders are finding common ground, and creating a new culture of public service.

The study reveals [...] a political energy that could fuel a reengineering of a French political and administrative system.

One of the heads of the regional administrations defines himself as an "entrepreneur for public policies", in a mix of public and private sector culture that is so difficult to find in France. Even if they often come from the Grandes Écoles, many of these regional presidents have been trained in universities (unlike the ENA types described above) and are finding new ways to apply research to public policy decisions.

Thus, the report calls for building new ties between national and regional civil servants. Regions can be used as pools for new talents for the State, in its attempt to reform the culture of its Senior Civil Servants. 

A New Culture for Public Policy 

The transformation of the regional administrative elite, and a strong leadership from some of the Regions’ presidents, has led to innovation in the content of public policies, but, more importantly, in the way they are conceived and led. 

Even though the merging of Regions has increased red tape, some of them have put in place ambitious processes of managerial transformation, with concrete results. The president of Île-de-France, Valérie Pécresse, has used the recent relocation of the Region’s headquarters out of Paris intramuros as an opportunity to introduce a new managerial culture, less hierarchical, more flexible, with no more closed offices, even for top management. In Grand Est, which was created by the merging of three smaller Regions, the necessity to build a new common culture has led to bold managerial and digital transformation. There has been more cooperation between the various departments, and more openness to local partners, be they private companies, civil society, or other local authorities. 

In many ways, the pandemic crisis has deepened and accelerated this transformation. The Regions have reacted to the crisis by activating their networks, and organizing the mutual assistance of local actors: businesses have helped civil protection associations to obtain masks and have been helped cope with the economic shock; civil society has benefited from equipment and funds, while mobilizing citizens to help fight the pandemic. The various levels of local authorities, traditionally competing against each other, have experienced new forms of collaboration under the auspices of the Regions. 

A New Awareness Towards Data Management

Another key finding of the study is the scale of data management projects led by the Regions over the last five years. Despite some progress, mainly in the field of open data, the French State has been lagging behind on this topic, as the pandemic has clearly revealed. 

As stressed by General Richard Lizurey, a high ranking official in charge of the audit of the crisis management, there has been practically no stream of data coming from the various information systems of the state to the crisis management room, despite offerings from the private sector to deploy ready-made crisis management systems.The "Grand Est" region, one of the hardest-hit, set up such a system called "Predict’Est" as early as July 2020, but has been unable to obtain the necessary datasets from the State that could have helped the regional decision makers to closely monitor the pandemic.

This rift reveals not only a distrust between the State and the regional officials, but also a growing disconnection between national and regional level. 

This rift reveals not only a distrust between the State and the regional officials, but also a growing disconnection between national and regional level. 

Since 2016, French Regions have indeed developed a range of data management initiatives, and data governance through partnerships with companies and other local authorities. In the Paris Region, field trips to Singapore and Montreal have inspired an innovative platform called "Île-de-France Smart Services". Started from scratch in 2017, the project has already been able to deliver around 25 services to businesses, local authorities and citizens. Thanks to Bertrand Monthubert, mathematician and former university president, the southern Region of Occitanie has launched "Occitanie Data", aimed at data sharing between regional stakeholders. In Centre-Val de Loire, the "Climate data hub" project is already building bridges between the space industry and the regional bodies in order to monitor CO2 emissions thanks to space data. 

Despite these promising initiatives, a lot remains to be done. Cooperation with the central State will be key to ensuring common data norms and to building coherent frameworks of collective action. Within the central State, experts of data management are struggling to evangelize their own hierarchy, and build bridges towards their counterparts in the Regions. They receive little recognition and support from the national levels, and often feel discouraged and powerless, although they constitute the main resources for a digital transformation of the French State. The report thus advocates for a new impetus in the French State data policy to overturn and reinvigorate this current dynamic.

After this "Tour de France" of regional public policies, and having experienced the new energy emerging from these local actors, it is all the more frustrating to witness a pre-electoral debate that is so focused on politics, rather than policies. The Regions are inventing a new model for public policy in France, and could help revive a system that is far too much centered on a single person - the president. Thus, considering the regional elections as preparation for the presidential election is simply missing the point. There is promising energy bubbling outside of Paris.

 

 

Copyright: FRED TANNEAU / AFP

 

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