The political map of France may be radically redrawn under ambitious, intriguing – and explosive – proposals which will be presented to President Nicolas Sarkozy next week.
Paris would become part of a "Greater Paris" of six million people, copying the model of Greater London. Normandy might be unified for the first time in 805 years (since King John carelessly lost William's dukedom to the French in 1204).
Brittany could, finally, reclaim its "lost" territory around Nantes and might expand eastwards for another 100 miles. Fury is erupting in Picardy, which would be one of two regions broken into pieces and wiped off from the administrative map.
Several other regions may be merged but only one other is threatened with dismemberment and oblivion. This is – perhaps coincidentally – Poitou-Charente, the fiefdom of the unsuccessful Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal.
The ideas will be formally presented to President Sarkozy next week by a committee chaired by the former prime minister Édouard Balladur. The President commissioned the report last year after promising to rationalise the multiple layers of governance in what is the most minutely administered nation in the world (100 départements, 22 regions, 36,000 communes).
In a country where a change in the colour of bus-tickets can be an invitation to open revolt, the proposals have already provoked fury, resistance movements and some scattered satisfaction. The present boundaries of the 22 regions go back only 25 years but they represent in some cases – not all – local pride in dukedoms and kingdoms which pre-date a unified France.
M. Balladur and his committee believe that the 22 regions should, over the next five years, be shrunk to 15, which would be stronger economically and capable of standing their ground against national government and multinational industries. He insisted that no boundary changes would be imposed without consent but a re-drawn map of France discussed by the committee is likely to be approved, in outline, by M. Sarkozy next week.
The proposal to expand the département (county) of Paris to absorb three neighbouring, suburban counties is an attempt to resolve a long-simmering quarrel about how to re-connect the well-heeled capital to its poor and troubled banlieues. The city of Paris (population two million) would remain as a separate municipality but the existing département number 75, which has the same boundaries as the city, would expand into "Le Grand Paris", embracing the rich and poor suburban towns of the three encircling departments, numbers 92, 93 and 94.
This idea was rejected by some left-wing members of the investigating committee and was dismissed yesterday by the Socialist Mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, as "wrong-headed" and a "democratic regression". He prefers the idea of an "Even Greater Paris", extending to all the capital's sprawling suburbs. An amorphous territory of this kind would not threaten to muddy the identity of the "historic" Paris inside the virtual city wall of the Boulevard Périphérique, the ring road.
Brush-fires of protest were also breaking out against the suggestion that Picardy in northern France – an ancient region, with its own language – should be partitioned between the Île-de-France, Champagne-Ardenne and the Nord-Pas de Calais. There were also furious objections to the proposals that Burgundy and Franche-Comté should become one mega-region stretching from Switzerland to the river Loire and that the Auvergne in south-central France should be lumped into one vast region with the upper Rhône valley and the northern French Alps.
In some ways, the proposals presented by M. Balladur and his team are less dramatic than many had feared (or wanted). In the event, the départements and communes will survive but will be encouraged to merge where sensible.
One idea which seemed to be accepted with relative calm yesterday was the re-unification of the historic dukedom of Normandy. Disputes are already raging, however, over which city should be its capital: Caen, William the Conqueror's historic capital, or Rouen, which is larger and better served by transport links.
Rising in Picardy: 40,000 sign petition
Few propositions in the "new" map of France have caused such outrage as the proposed abolition of the region of Picardy. An online petition, " Touche pas à ma Picardie!" had gathered over 44 000 signatures yesterday. The predominantly agricultural northern region has a population of just under two million, and stretches from the Channel to 50km from Paris. It has its own language, Picard, and its strategic location has made it one of Europe's most tragic battlegrounds. Northern Picardy includes the grave-strewn fields of the Somme. Picardy also has an impressive list of famous sons and daughters, from the Emperor Charlemagne to Calvin and the writers Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas and Racine. Politicians of left and right have leapt to the defence of the region, whose three départements would be amalgamated into other regions.
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