French centralism in the Covid-19 era: The awakening of the Regional Force

Centralism à la Française seems to be part of our cultural and historical DNA. Every French child learns at school that Louis XIV united the territory, that the Revolution reaffirmed the centrality of our administration in Paris, that Napoleon – father of the Civil Code – unified the law and the institutions and that the Third Republic came and forged our unique identity (by eradicating local and regional cultures).

This is how, in the minds of most French people, the administration of the State is centralised from Paris; in fact, it was a plan for State decentralisation that pushed General De Gaulle out of power in 1969.

The emergence of regions as a decentralised instrument of administrative power goes back to 1956. At that time, they only represented legal entities for the exercise of local power, but they have steadily been gaining in competences in recent years. Constitutionalised in 2003, there are now 18 of them since the reform of 2016 (13 in metropolitan France and 5 overseas).

Created by the central administration in Paris, they have been frequently criticised for their lack of consideration for local cultural realities, for their ambiguity, for being positioned too far from local issues, and this contributes to the lack of understanding and interest of the French towards their roles and functions. As a result, in February 2021, the majority of French people stated that they did not know their regional representatives, and 53% of them did not know their regional president. 

It is in this context that the Covid-19 health crisis emerged at the end of 2019. The management of this crisis, which started vertically, quickly led to a re-evaluation of the local level, pushing regional entities to become aware of their position, to innovate, to confront Paris and to reorganise themselves. However, this change in practices was made possible in part thanks to the support of an external element: the European Union, provided constant economic and political support. 

On 16 March 2020, the President of the Republic solemnly announced the establishment of a confinement, in a very Grand siècle atmosphere that only France knows, reinforcing this image of centrality and verticality. But this centralism quickly showed its limits and regions were able to regain the upper hand. 

The appointment of Jean Castex as Prime Minister clearly shows an ambition to renegotiate the social pact that previously existed between the State and local authorities in order to get out of the crisis

It is the Grand-Est region which in March 2020 took the lead by opening negotiations with the German border regions to transfer French patients to German hospitals in an attempt to counterbalance the overloading of French hospitals (this initiative quickly gained the support of the French and German government). The region also used its own funds to rely on local industries in order to redirect them towards the production of medical supplies requested by the health authorities.

Other regions followed up by setting up various support mechanisms for their businesses and populations.  

Aware of this paradigm shift, the President decided in July 2020, after the resignation of Edouard Philippe as Prime Minister, to appoint Mr Jean Castex, reputed to be a fine local and regional politician, to this position. This change clearly shows an ambition to renegotiate the social pact that previously existed between the State and local authorities in order to get out of the crisis.

But this newly activated wave of questioning led to a political crisis between Paris and the regions, culminating in August 2020 in what some media have called the “Paris – Marseille Duel” (which for once was not linked to football).

While the number of cases was increasing significantly in Marseille, and amid a debate on chloroquine led by Professor Didier Raoult (a practitioner in Marseille), the French government began to worry and paved the way for a containment of the region. It is in this context that on 27 August the Prime Minister decided to organise a press conference on the situation in Marseille. Feeling stigmatised and ignored, the Marseille City Hall decided, with the support of the department and the region, to organise a rival press conference at the same time. They pointed at, in a transpartisan manner, a ” government who decides from Paris ” (Mrs. Michèle Rubirola, Mayor of Marseille, Socialist), a government who stigmatises part of the territory (Mrs. Martine Vassal, President of the County Council, Conservative). The President of the Region (Mr. Renaud Muselier, Conservative) went as far as to draw a parallel with the plague in Marseille in 1720… They then claimed to be able to establish their own statistical tools and their own medical treatments.

A few weeks after these announcements bordering on secessionism, the regional authorities expressed their will to unify and assert themselves in front of the State during the “16th Congress of the Regions” in October 2020. The media Les Echos sums up the situation as follows: “The regions (are) ready to take on more responsibility to support the State in the face of the health crisis” and the President of the Ile-de-France region compares her role to that of a boat captain in the middle of a storm.

In 2021, while we just celebrated the tragic anniversary of this health crisis, the role of the regions in the French political and institutional landscape seems to have changed. They no longer hesitate to express their ambitions and play a greater role in consultation with the central government. As a result, a policy of differentiation seems to have been imposed in the management of the crisis, with confinements now established territory by territory, region by region, department by department. With on the one hand regions that experience confinements, decided most of the time locally, such as the Alpes-Maritimes and the metropolis of Dunkerque and on the other hand localities that are beginning to demand deconfinements as was the case in Bretagne. 

After a year of crisis, it is now possible to see that the French regions have emerged stronger to make their voices heard but have also gained their place in the decision-making mechanism with the central power.

However, this capacity for regional action could not have been as effective without the support of the third player, the European Union. 

Since the regional reform of 2014, the French regions have received the competence to autonomously manage the various European funds (ESF-ERDF-EAFRD) and it is the implementation of this capacity that has enabled them to act quickly in the context of this health crisis. 

In addition to this management capacity, it was more generally the European bodies   that facilitated the provision of liquidity. 

Thus, to help them, the European Union has, from the beginning of the crisis, changed its practices through the adoption in April 2020 of the “Coronavirus response invest initiative” (CRII). By facilitating access to cash, the French regions have been able to organise themselves more easily, order medical equipment (as was the case in the East of France, Martinique and Brittany) and also to organise support plans for businesses such as in the Ile-de-France region.

The European Union therefore sought to affirm its support at the Congress of the Regions in October 2020 through the presence of the President of the European Committee of the Regions (Mr Apostolos Tzitzikostas) and the President of the ECB (Ms Christine Lagarde). 

The EIB has also chosen to support the regions by putting in place a plan to facilitate the granting of loans and with a €25 billion investment plan to support regional projects. 

However, the question arises as to what is at stake behind the strong positions taken by some regional executives. While all the regions are today controlled by opposition political parties and the elections in June 2021 are looming, it seems legitimate to wonder about the possible political aims of these measures.

The health crisis seems therefore to have allowed the French regions to impose themselves in the centralism that classically defines the French political and administrative systems. The various local confinements now include very few announcements by the President of the Republic and seem to leave more room for local elected representatives. 

However, the question arises as to what is at stake behind the strong positions taken by some regional executives. While all the regions are today controlled by opposition political parties and the elections in June 2021 are looming, it seems legitimate to wonder about the possible political aims of these measures. Is there a real revival in local and regional politics? Or is this merely political positioning? Only time will tell…  

But despite these questions, the fact is that, according to an Odoxa poll of February 2021, the voting intentions of the French in the next regional elections seem to be clearly on the rise compared to the pre-crisis period but also compared to the last regional elections of 2015. It is estimated that the probable future rate of participation will be 60% as opposed to the 50% of 2015.

Vincent Mendes Dos Reis pour La Regionisto