France/Decentralization: Cour des Comptes recommends gradual reform of territorial organization
In its report "Decentralization, 40 years on", the French Audit Office (Cour des Comptes) recommends a new stage in decentralization, to review the distribution of powers between the State and the various levels of local government. This would involve a further reduction in the number of communes, through mergers or the creation of communes-communautés.
Despite forty years of de-centralization, the balance of powers between the State and the various levels of local government remains unsatisfactory.Despite forty years of de-centralization, the balance of powers between the State and the various levels of local government is still not satisfactory, according to the Cour des Comptes in its 2023 annual report. Considering that "the path of permanent reform, which has been imposed by changing governments and political prioritiesis no longer tenable", the Court recommends a "gradual and organized relaunch of decentralization". The objectives are to review the division of powers between the State and local authorities, reorganize relations between local authorities and provide each level of local management with effective means of action.
This presupposes, first and foremost, the adoption of a new approach to intercommunality, the territorial project and the notion of community interest, and the simplification of financial relations within the communal block. The corollary is a reduction in the number of communes, through mergers or the creation of communes-communautés.
Neither a complete overhaul of the system, which is unrealistic in the short term, nor an "untenable" status quo: in the Court's view, we need to prepare the ground for an ambitious reform. In the short term, the available levers should be used to simplify the organization and better coordinate the actions of the various local management levels and decentralized government departments.
In the Court's view, steps can be taken quickly to deepen and simplify inter-municipal cooperation, while continuing to encourage the merger of less populous communes with neighboring ones: strengthen the role of lead local authorities for multi-stakeholder policies, make better use of territorial differentiation (which(which entrusts powers normally devolved to several categories of local authority or group ofof communes) and experimentation (entrusting a local authority with a public policy that is not part of its legal remit, for a given period).This is intended to adapt the organization and management of local authorities to the diversity of local situations.
The logic of decentralization based on blocks of competences, as set out in the 1982-1983 laws, which has shown its limits, could be maintained in certain areas: vocational training and employment, social competences and school management. But when it comes to shared powers, a law will have to reinforce the principle of the "chef de filât" and specify the responsibilities of each level of government.principle and specify the terms of cooperation between the local authorities concerned. This would be the case, in particular, for the "conventions territoriales d'exercice concerté des compétences" (CTEC), which would have to be signed and approved by the prefectoral authority.
The Cour des Comptes also stresses the need to refocus the State on its "role as strategist, regulator and partner of local authorities".