The international series: Local government in France
Cherilyn Mawby, External Affairs Assistant, 18 August, 2017

French government is stereotypically synonymous with strong centralisation and hierarchical structure. This means a comparatively weaker role for local authorities, with France ranked as the 13th least decentralised in the OECD with regards to public spending, and even a slight mistrust of local government. The United Kingdom isn’t far behind, however, ranking as the OECD’s 14th least decentralised country.

Previously, French municipalities and departments enjoyed only the limited autonomy granted to them, however, a series of ‘decentralisation laws’ in the early 1980s altered the distribution of powers and competences between central government and local authorities. A key element of these laws concerned territorial decentralisation: the process of giving the territorial authorities of France separate defined responsibilities and resources. This affected local authorities greatly.

The next stage of territorial decentralisation, in 2002 and 2004, introduced both financial autonomy to territorial collectives (commune, department, and region) and the words ‘region’ and ‘decentralisation’ to the French Constitution. The ability to hold local referenda and the right to petition were also introduced. In 2004 and 2005, this self-determination extended to include responsibility for: non-teaching staff in schools; and professional training. Regional commuter rail transport was transferred to individual regions also.

This steadily increasing decentralisation has resulted in a simultaneous increase in local government expenditure. Between 1982 and 2014, expenditure has increased from 56.4 billion euros to 200.8 billion euros, primarily due to the new competences and personnel that the State has transferred to them. Under this decentralisation, local government has become the largest public investor – driven by the structural needs of their regions. Even following a decrease in 2015, France’s general government expenditure still amounted to 56.6% of its GDP – much higher than the average for OECD countries and higher than its revenue which amounts to 53.1% of its GDP.

Change in the Distribution of General Government Expenditures across Levels of Government, 2007 to 2015 – page 81

The above graph further emphasises the joint effort of central and local government to lower spending. This contrasts with the U.K. where, although local government has reduced its spending, central government spending has increased as a proportion of overall spending.

French government is well-known for its welfare role; and its main public social spending is spent on health and pensions, like the majority of other countries listed below.

Pensions and Health are the Main Areas of Public Social Spending – page 4

France dedicates less social spending on income and means-test benefits, at only 9.6% like other continental European countries. In comparison, the U.K. spend more with 25.9%.

Income Testing of Social Support plays a limited role in Continental Europe – page 6

Despite improvements in decentralisation and the start of joint efforts between central and local government, French central government does not fully respect the autonomy of its local authorities. Indeed, it is one of the few countries (29%) that don’t consider local authorities as capable of declaring their own anti-corruption policies, known as ‘integrity policies’. It is one of three countries, alongside Belgium and Poland, that avoid coordination mechanisms between central and local government for integrity policies entirely.

Autonomous Sub-National Integrity Policies – page 155

France has a tendency to veer towards centralisation, possibly a consequence of its high power-distance index (“PDI”) – synonymous with hierarchy. Despite this, however, it has steadily achieved greater decentralisation over the years and thus greater self-determination for local government. French central and local government even seem to have begun joint efforts to achieve national goals. Yet, the autonomy of local authorities is still not respected entirely. If history repeats itself, however, we can expect more steady increases in the responsibility handed over to local government in the future.