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Published on November 27, 2007

by Pierre Deyon

Pierre Deyon, academic and former Chief Education Officer, is the author of several history books on French regions. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

A State has a policy of town and country planning and regional development when it endeavours to influence the geographical distribution of the population and economic activities in order to increase the nation’s homogeneity, accelerate or regulate development, or enhance the country’s competitive position in the international arena. So this is not something peculiar to France, and many States have announced intentions in this area and pursued specific programmes. Indeed, the very layout of communication routes and all major civil engineering projects have an impact on the structure of economic life. Even more specifically, from the 1930s onwards, to deal with the crisis in coal mining and the over-emphasis on London as the centre, Britain set about building a number of new towns and using a combination of tax incentives and subsidies to create so-called redevelopment areas or "trading estates". Similarly, in the United States, Roosevelt, with the Tennessee Valley Authority, gave the first example of a large-scale -regional development project. However, while this sort of development scheme is not a French invention or found only in France, the fact remains that no other Western country with a liberal or mixed economy has gone as far as France in committing the authority of the State to a policy of town and country planning and regional development. It is also true that no other country has suffered as acutely as France from the excessive concentration of population around its capital, the location of its principal economic activities in the northern part of its territory, and the economic backwardness of some of its old traditional rural areas.

Birth of France’s town and country planning and regional development policy

Immediately following France’s liberation in 1945, a number of far-sighted men in the Planning Commission, such as Raoul Dautry and François Gravier, whose book "Paris et le désert français" caused a great stir, urged the necessity of achieving a better balance between the infrastructure, industry and agriculture of modern France throughout the national territory. It was the report submitted by Eugène Claudius-Petit to the Council of Ministers in February 1950 and published as a brochure entitled "Pour un plan national d’aménagement de territoire" ["For nation-wide town and country planning"] which set the essential guidelines for public action in this area for almost the next half-century. The idea was to counter the excessively uneven distribution of population and economic activity, which was said to be causing overcrowding in some places and veritable depopulation in others. On the investment front, Claudius-Petit’s projects involved constraints on the former, and financial support for the latter.

This thinking at government level was paralleled in the early 1950s by the emergence of a number of regional associations (non-profit-making organizations) comprising elected representatives, business and trade union leaders, officials and academics. Modelled on a committee set up to promote the interests of Brittany (Comité d’étude et de liaison des intérêts bretons), these "expansion committees", created in Languedoc, Alsace, Roussillon and Lorraine, called for a more equitable and rational distribution of public projects and were already working on an outline of regional programming. Under this dual stimulus, the governments of Pierre Mendès-France and Edgar Faure, in 1954 and 1955, took a number of measures which marked the beginning of a deliberate and ongoing policy of town and country planning and regional development. A decree of January 1955 instituted an approval procedure for all investments in Île de France. The idea was not to block the development of the Paris region, but to give the Town and Country Planning Directorate a means of pressure in its negotiations with big business. Whenever approval was granted for a venture in Île de France, there had to be a counterpart in the shape of a new branch office or another factory of the same firm set up in the provinces, preferably in the West or South-West.

A few months later, in June and December 1955, there were other decrees preparing the ground for regional action programmes and authorizing the Minister for the Economy to grant State financial guarantees to decentralization or redevelopment operations. A system of financial incentives was even introduced to encourage industrialists to set up in the so-called "critical" zones, and 21 regional action areas were identified, foreshadowing the "regions" of the January 1982 Act.

With the same goal and at the same time, the Caisse des dépôts et consignations [official deposits, investments, savings management etc.], equipped with enormous financial resources, was mandated to support the semi-public companies entrusted with carrying out large-scale hydraulic schemes and major civil engineering projects in rural areas. The Compagnie d’aménagement de la région Bas-Rhône Languedoc (Bas-Rhône Languedoc Region Development Company), Société de mise en valeur de la Corse (Corsica Development Company) and Société du canal de Provence (Provence Canal Company) were thus enabled to inaugurate the first large-scale concerted regional development projects.

Proactive spirit of the Gaullists

General de Gaulle and his close associates resolved to pursue this policy of deliberately reshaping the nation’s economic geography on an even larger scale, and planned to place it under the Prime Minister’s direct and permanent control. This was the reason for the creation in 1960 of the Interministerial Committee for Town and Country Planning and then, in February 1963, of "DATAR" (Délégation à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’action régionale - town and country planning and regional development agency), whose first Head, Olivier Guichard, worked very closely with the Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou. This new government agency was assigned three essential objectives: "devolved" industrialization, the pursuit of large-scale regional development projects, and the promotion of ten or so métropoles d’équilibre [regional centres]. It is estimated that between 1963 and 1973, in the atmosphere of dynamism and economic prosperity which characterized the thirty-year boom period from 1945 to 1975, there were 3,500 investment operations, encouraged by bonuses and exemptions, leading to the creation of over 300,000 jobs in the provinces, but without de-industrializing Île de France. Some of these new ventures, particularly in the automobile, aviation and domestic appliance industries, changed the conditions of life in the provinces.

The same period saw the upgrading and tourist development of the Languedoc-Roussillon littoral, improvement of amenities on the Aquitaine coast and construction of eight new towns, five of them in the Paris region. This promotion of regional activities, and in particular the support given to eight métropoles d’équilibre (Lille, Nancy-Metz, Lyon, Marseille, Toulouse, Nantes, Bordeaux and Strasbourg), seemed to be paving the way for a forthcoming institutional reform introducing a regional tier to France’s local government system. This was very probably General de Gaulle’s intention, judging from his speech in Lyon in March 1968. But the university unrest and above all the failure of the April 1969 referendum slowed the pace of this development and delayed the institutional reforms for thirteen years.

Giscard interlude

The first oil crisis, end of the boom period and election of Valéry Giscard d’Estaing as President of the Republic led to a marked shift in town and country planning policy. The new leaders were less convinced than their predecessors of the effectiveness of State intervention: swayed by the arguments of the liberal economists, they considered that the development and location of companies should be left entirely to the laws of the market to decide. And then, because their electoral strength did not lie in the big urban conurbations, they were inclined to pay more attention to the problems of the countryside and small towns. In a decision indicative of the new political climate, DATAR was removed from Matignon, the Prime Minister’s office. From then on, it wandered from ministry to ministry, in the wake of successive ministerial reorganizations, even on occasion being entrusted to a mere junior minister with little influence in government circles. Consideration was also given to cutting back the new towns programme, especially as the end of the demographic expansion was forcing a revision of the over-optimistic forecasts based on population growth up to 2000. Moreover, the structural difficulties of the economy, now in the throes of profound change, inexorable rise of unemployment and a rash of industrial relocations obliged the government to attend to whatever was most urgent and, rather than pursuing the major regional development projects, to concentrate either on ad hoc measures to rescue threatened industries or take palliative action to mitigate the social effects of de-industrialization. Called on daily for assistance, involved in innumerable bail-out operations, DATAR was to lose some of its prerogatives and its responsibilities for forward planning. Changeovers of political power, the decentralization laws These constraints would continue to be felt after 1981. The industrial crisis and the crisis in the working class suburbs were to come to a head in the middle of the decade. The advent of the Socialist government was, however, reflected in a significant increase in the funds allocated to regional development and, above all, in the introduction of a new and fundamental factor: decentralization. The region, having become a decentralized tier of local government, was vested with particular responsibilities in the field of regional planning and development. It was with the regions that the State would now, from 1984 onwards, prepare planning contracts (1) and the scheduling of basic infrastructure projects which became the subject of a bitter running debate between the elected representatives and the government. This procedure was to make regional development policy less technocratic and less authoritarian in nature, but there was also a danger that it might thereby become less proactive, coherent and nation-wide in scope.

The gravity of the economic and social crisis made this a very real danger. A series of problems had to be faced in quick succession: the naval shipyards in Dunkirk, Saint-Nazaire and La Ciotat, steel industry in Lorraine and Ardennes, and closure of the Decazeville and Carmaux coal mines. At the same moment the outlying suburbs of Lyon, Marseille erupted, as did the districts of Val Fourré in Mantes-la-Jolie (Yvelines) and Neuhof in Strasbourg, alerting public opinion and making the authorities realize that urgent action was needed. The geographical fault lines were reversed, since the old industrial areas of the North and East were now stricken, and the fault lines were no longer only geographical, since they seemed to run through almost all working-class suburbs and high-density housing estates.

A second changeover of political power in 1986 saw the Right come back to government and further deepened the disarray, at one stroke jeopardizing more than thirty years of work, since the immediate associates of the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, gave serious consideration to abolishing DATAR. There was an immediate drastic cut in the funds allocated to the regional development account. It took the resistance of the minister, Pierre Méhaignerie, and the more qualified conclusions of a study group chaired by Olivier Guichard, to save DATAR and to direct the work of regional development, for a few years, towards the priority spheres of motorways and the TGV (high-speed train network).

Towards a definition of sustainable development

1988 saw President Mitterrand reelected and the return of a left-wing majority to Parliament. Urged on by ministers, Roger Fauroux and Jacques Chérèque, the government set about defining a town and country planning policy adapted to the new circumstances created by the opening-up of Eastern Europe and the launch by the President of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, in Brussels of ambitious programmes of intra-European development and cross-border cooperation. The 1990 census had just revealed that the regional imbalances, far from diminishing, were becoming even more pronounced, even though they had sometimes changed in nature. The Île-de-France, Rhône-Alpes and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur regions and their metropolises were still growing, whereas the country’s eight smallest regions were continuing to lose population. An "empty" swathe of France was gradually emerging across the country from the Ardennes, Burgundian plateaux, Massif Central and Landes to the foothills of the Pyrenees. From the same census we learned that Île-de-France, with 18% of the urban population, still had 40% of the nation’s third-cycle postgraduate students (2), 42% of its private-sector engineers and managers and 55-60% of its research workers.

This finding demanded a change of methods. The strategy adopted, after a long debate in Parliament in May 1990, set four fundamental objectives: to support the rural areas - to be made more aware of their common interests and organized where possible around the larger villages and small towns; to encourage a number of urban conurbations to work more closely with their surrounding rural areas; to develop the associative network of medium-sized towns; and above all to position France more effectively within an enlarged Europe by rethinking her communications system, which for too long had been a hub-and-spoke design mainly confined to metropolitan France.

This policy of regional revitalization needed one last dimension: that of research and higher education. Would not the location of business henceforth largely depend on the kind of facilities available to people newly arrived in an area, for training and career enhancement, for managers, executives, the young? Designed in 1990 and 1991 to respond to the influx of students, whose numbers had grown by over 50% in a single decade and would continue to grow until the end of the millennium, the "University 2000" plan receives equal amounts of financial support from the State and from regional and local authorities. The plan is funding the construction of 1.5 million square metres of new premises, and enabling académies [education areas] in the North and West to catch up on the capital equipment front. Three new universities were created - in Artois, on the Pas-de-Calais coast and at La Rochelle. Dozens of departments of IUTs (3) and STSs (4) were opened in small and medium-sized towns.

The relative weight of Île-de-France in the numbers of third-cycle postgraduate students (2) and research workers was reduced, and the universities of Cergy-Pontoise, Marne-la-Vallée, Évry and Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines took some of the pressure off institutions in the centre of the capital. Like cultural decentralization and the urban regeneration programmes, supported in turn by the métropoles d’équilibre policy and then by the "medium-sized-town contracts" (5), this programme has definitely helped transform life in the regions.

Since 1990, the rethink has continued, first on the occasion of a national debate instigated in France between 1993 and 1995 by the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, which was also fuelled by the report of a Senate fact-finding mission and kept going by the publication of books by Jean-Louis Guigou, director of DATAR and subsequently, from 1997, delegate for Town and Country Planning and Regional Development. The Act of 25 June 1999, the so-called "Outline Act on Town and Country Planning and Sustainable Regional Development" (LOADDT - Loi d’orientation pour l’aménagement et le développement durable du territoire), which amended the February 1995 Act, provides for nine national schemes for jointly-run services in the following spheres: higher education and research, culture, information and communications, health, energy, passenger and goods transport, sport, countryside and rural areas.

But the essential and most forward-looking aspect of the new legislation undoubtedly concerns the "pays" and "conurbation" projects (6). The notion of contrats de pays and their practical application is almost twenty years old. The hope seems to be that this time it will be put into practice everywhere. The constitution of these pays and then the integration of their projects into the planning contracts are to be the joint responsibility of a town and country planning and regional development conference and the regional préfet [State representative in the region]. Strengthening solidarity between small towns and the rural world is one of the essential objectives of these projects. The inclusion of conurbations in these arrangements is much more of an innovation, and this will apply to urban areas with over 50,000 inhabitants and a central commune with at least 15,000 residents.

The project will spell out the conurbation’s policies on development, social cohesion, town planning, transport, housing and the environment. The 12 July 1999 Act on intercommunal links defined the legal status of these communities for the purposes of property and business taxation.

V) Town and country planning and regional development on the threshold of the third millennium

- Europe and the world: town and country planning and regional development in France can no longer be conceived without reference to Europe. This presupposes both the emergence of areas which lie across national frontiers and harmonization of our national policies with European intervention in agricultural policy and support for crisis regions.

- Urban problems: the huge growth of French towns in recent decades is historically unprecedented. There is no French town of over 10,000 inhabitants without at least one high-density housing estate with the attendant problems of unemployment and social marginalization. But there is a second problem worrying our towns. Like the neighbouring countryside, they are increasingly feeling the pull of about ten big regional centres and need to organize their collaboration and participation in mutually supportive and complementary networks.

Towards a new local planning infrastructure for France: the Republic has a duty both to respect the traditional local areas and to organize regional life around a few large metropolises which have European or international ambitions. The contrats de pays, and some of the conurbation contracts will aim to meet these needs. Both will be progressively integrated into the planning contracts (1). Of course, the essential question which arises now is whether it will be possible to continue along this road without rethinking the country’s local government structure and reviewing the division of responsibilities and resources between the State and regional, departmental and communal authorities.

(1) Contrats de plan, drawn up at regional level, lay down the major economic and social priorities for the region and set out the relevant action programmes, which the plan’s signatories (State, regional authorities) are committed to finance.

(2) The third cycle (stage) in the French higher education system, open only to selected postgraduate students, leads beyond a master’s degree and can pave the way for obtaining a PhD.

(3) At IUTs (Instituts universitaires de technologie), students prepare a two-year technology degree.

(4) STSs are highly skilled technical sectors within general and technical lycées. These offer post-baccalauréat courses in the industrial, commercial, agricultural, tertiary and applied arts sectors, leading to the BTS (brevet de technicien supérieur).

(5) These planning contracts are designed to support medium-sized towns located in the centre of development areas. They can involve the financing of multimedia libraries, cinemas, stadia, sports halls, swimming pools, exhibition halls, etc., as well as transport interchanges and links not financed under other regional schemes.

(6) The contrats de pays, area contracts, covering certain small towns and the outlying areas around them, are designed to combat the economic and demographic weakening of rural areas by making it possible for their populations to go on living there and take a more active part in the country’s general development. At the same time, the emphasis is placed on developing local responsibilities and fostering the latent solidarity between communes. Projets d’agglomération allow larger communes to finance mutual-interest projects from the proceeds of the tax on local businesses (single rate for the whole conurbation).

Bibliographical summary

- Brunet (R.), La France, un territoire à protéger, Edition No. 1,1994.

- Chenu (R.), Paul Delouvrier ou la passion d’agir, Le Seuil, 1994.

- Damette (F.), La France en villes, Documentation française, 1994.

- François-Poncet (J.), Refaire la France, Rapport sénatorial, 1994.

- Frémont (A.), La région, espace vécu, Flammarion, 1999.

- Gaudemar (J.-P. de), Aménagement du territoire dans Encyclopédie économique, 1990.

- Guigou (J.-L.), France 2015 recomposition du territoire, 1993.

- Laborie (J.-P.), Langumier (J.-P.) et Roo (Priscilla de), La politique française d’aménagement du territoire, Documentation française, 1985.

- Madiot (Y.), Aménagement du territoire, Colin, 1996.

- Monod (I.) et Castelbajac (Ph. de ), L’aménagement du territoire, PUF, 1997.

- Portier (N.), Deux pas en avant, un pas en arrière, Pouvoirs locaux, No. 33, 1996.

- Randet (P.) Un grand dessein, Documentation française, 1994./.