Choking On the Millefeuille

by David Sugarman

One of the oddest things about local government in France is that there’s no real difference between the role of the council administering an enormous city or a tiny village. It’s just a question of scale. Once a village is recognised as being a commune as opposed to being a hameau, it has a maire and a conseil municipal. Honestly, that’s what it’s called, even in a rural village of barely a hundred inhabitants. I should know: I’m a member of one such council myself.

The next set of “municipal” elections in France is scheduled for March 23 and 30, 2014, a two-round election. Over the coming months, I intend to devote a few posts to this ongoing saga. I will divide my focus between what’s going on in some of the major cities, where there are highly significant party political implications, and what will be happening where I live, the small corner of Normandy called the Pays de Caux where I have spent almost eighteen years and have been a conseiller municipal for the past thirteen years.

Before embarking on any of this, though, I think some background information about the structure of French local government may come in useful. There are so many layers that the French often refer to it as a millefeuille. That’s one of those delicious but rather messy pâtisseries made up of alternating layers of puff pastry and a creamy filling. Not quite a thousand layers, but who’s counting?

The lowest layer consists of local councils, of which there are in excess of 36,000 in France. In major cities, they resemble any other country’s city councils. But in very small towns and villages, the conseil municipal has somewhat wider powers than the equivalent local authority, which in Britain it would be a town council or parish council. Its tax-raising powers enable it to adjust local taxation to the level of services and amenities it provides. These taxes include property tax, two types of land tax and business tax. It receives state grants and a range of subsidies for specific projects.

The next level up consists of groups of communes. In rural areas such as my own, these are called communautés de communes, but in urban zones they have a slightly different form and are called communauté d’agglomération (an agglomération is a conurbation). They exercise powers on a collective basis that were once held by communes on an “each to his own” basis, such as rubbish collection and recycling or promoting business parks, and they are made up of conseillers municipaux delegated by each member commune. The mode of election to these bodies will be radically altered in 2014.

Now a few words about the cantons and the regions. There are 96 départements in metropolitan France (i.e. mainland France plus Corsica), to which are added five overseas départements (run in exactly the same way, but situated in the Caribbean or the Indian Ocean). Each département is divided into a number of cantons, each of which elects councillors to sit on the conseil général (confusingly, the name given to the département-level council). Meanwhile, a région is made up of between two and eight départements, and there are regional councillors elected to sit on the conseil régional. The next round of conseil général and conseil régional elections, in 2015, is due to see very substantial reforms introduced. Not before time, you may say, but not all the proposals seem sensible when viewed from a rural standpoint. More about this in the future.

Meanwhile, if having a conseil municipal, a communauté de communes or d’agglomération, a conseil général and a conseil régional were not enough (and I have spared you the federations of communes that administer water services, electricity, school infrastructures and plenty more), we come to the topmost level of local authority: the préfet, a high-ranking civil servant who represents the French State. There is one préfet per département, as well as one per région. A préfet is the main man (or woman). What s/he says goes! This can, and does, entail countermanding decisions taken by democratically elected councils at any of the other levels (albeit less often today than at one time).

When I was writing about the millefeuille earlier, I saw that this particular pastry is called a Napoleon in some English-speaking countries. Very appropriate! The roots of this system lie in the rigid centralisation brought about by many of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reforms. Although these days there is a high level of autonomy at local level, it is firmly controlled by the State. When you have taken part in as many conseil municipal and communauté de communes meetings as I have, you realise that for all the Liberté, Égalité and Fraternité, the liberty is sometimes illusory!