France acts to make government a friend

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The Independent Online


The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, has announced a three-year programme to reform the functioning of the French state, intended to fulfil Jacques Chirac's election promise that he would narrow the gap between the rulers and the ruled.

Among its provisions are a promise that any request to a government office which is not answered within two months can be deemed to have been answered "yes" and a compulsory period of two years' work in the provinces for anyone who aspires to work in a central government department.

Some of the changes announced yesterday owe something to the reforms introduced by the Thatcher and Major governments in Britain, including Mr Major's much-maligned Citizen's Charter. Others, however, try to address some peculiarly French problems, deriving from the highly centralised nature of the state and the way in which senior administrators are currently trained. Presenting the report, Claude Goasguen, the minister placed in charge of the reform, said: "At a time when the state is being criticised for doing both too much and not doing enough, it's time for reform."

The main features of the 10-point programme are a desire to prune paperwork, decentralise as many government functions as possible - whether by devolving power and officials to the provinces or by farming them out to quangos - and streamline government functions. Mr Juppe said that in time the existence of whole ministries could come under scrutiny.

Between now and the end of December, there is to be a preliminary cull of paperwork required by government offices. At present, as Mr Goasguen pointed out, opening a hairdressing business or putting up a small building in the garden could be subject to as many as 1,500 regulations. There is also to be a long-term project, starting next year, to recodify more than 8,000 laws and 80,000 decrees and make them simpler.

The measure to assume a "yes" answer if a government office had not replied to a request within two months is part of the same process. At present, requests to government offices which are not answered within four months are deemed to have been answered "no".

The proposals for decentralisation are intended only in part to reduce the number of government employees in Paris. Mostly they are to cut duplication of functions. Initial proposals are for up to 5,000 civil servants' posts (10 per cent of the total based in Paris) to be moved to the provinces, mostly to departments which already exist thanks to earlier efforts at decentralisation in the early Eighties. Those reforms, according to their critics, set up regional offices for certain ministries - but did not result in any reduction of staff or functions in Paris.

The redeployment is also intended to put more government offices closer to where they are needed.

A recent study showed that, contrary to common belief, there was no real disparity in provision of government services between provincial towns and rural areas. There was, however, a shortage of offices in urban areas with special problems - like industrialised suburbs with high unemployment and new towns with large concentrations of young people.