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.