The Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, but it is only the past 30 years that France has become used to living within a larger European land mass and single trading area and sharing a currency with 18 other countries. Relinquishing some national sovereignty started in 1985 with the Schengen agreement. In 1986 the single European market legislation was introduced and in 1992 the Maastricht treaty was signed and ratified. Shortly after the turn of the century, people could travel across France’s borders with minimum immigration and customs checks and no longer had to change francs into D-marks, lira or pesetas because crisp Euro banknotes and freshly minted coins had supplanted them all. And, as Marine Le Pen found out to her cost at the presidential election in May 2017, a majority of the French have no desire to put the clock back.
At about the same time that power in these crucial areas of national sovereignty was being delegated upwards to supranational institutions, the government of France, under François Mitterrand, started a process of delegating power downwards to regional and local authorities. A policy of decentralisation, initiated in 1982 was expanded in 2003 and again by François Hollande’s landmark regional reform in 2014.
So what then of the centralised state? Article 1 of the 1958 constitution of the Fifth Republic states that “France is a republic that is one and indivisible” – a notion that originated with the French Revolution. An amendment stating that it has a “decentralised organisation” was approved in 2003. Paradoxically though, instead of reducing the influence of central government, as might be logically expected from a country that sets great store by logic, decentralisation, instead of flattening and rationalising layers of administration, has tended to pile them on top of each other. Many considered for instance that the regional reform of 2014 was a golden opportunity to dispense with the “département”, introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte, and delegate more power to variable geometry rural or urban local authorities answering increasingly to a larger regional authority. It was not to be. 22 regions were merged into 13 European-sized entities but “départements” survived, with their own governance and specific powers. A prefect and sub-prefects are still in attendance to represent the state. And although local authorities raise local taxes, they are still heavily dependant on dwindling subsidies from central government to balance their books.
The centralised state is thus increasingly caught between two conflicting constraints. The current reform proposals for the SNCF are a good illustration: within a few years, regional authorities, that have now been given the powers to organise their own transport needs, will be able to award tenders to competitors of the SNCF. Main line rail services on the other hand will be increasingly influenced by the four European Rail Packages to which France has finally, but reluctantly, agreed.
Would not the logical conclusion be for France eventually to adopt a federal structure, with the state limiting itself to a smaller number of policy areas like defence and security, public finances, justice, possibly education, and health care? Some of which would be carried out in in cooperation with other federal countries within the EU?
Such an outcome seems highly unlikely. For any such move would go seriously against the grain of a country that has spent centuries building up and consolidating its national unity. Shortly before his death in 1985, the famous historian, Fernand Braudel, put it in the following terms in an interview with “Le Monde”: ……”(over the centuries) France has expended its most precious resources to build itself into a single entity..… in France’s identity, there is therefore this need for concentration and centralisation against which it is dangerous to act.”
In the eyes of the rest of the world, Emmanuel Macron passes for an energetic and reforming President, but the truth is that in adapting France’s highly centralised and costly state to the requirements of both European integration and regional decentralisation, he has barely scratched the surface. Amidst all the crowing over the reduction in 2017 of France’s annual budget deficit to less than the Maastricht yardstick of 3% of GDP, for the first time in nearly 20 years, it has hardly been noticed that growth-driven tax revenue can explain all of the improvement and that public sector spending has barely fallen. It was still a record 45.4 % of GDP last year. Spend some time, usually far longer than you would like, in any government office and you will find that although computer screens have replaced ledgers and pen-pushers have become mouse-clickers, little else has changed in years. The government has announced that public sector workers will soon be able to volunteer, undoubtedly with a generous sweetener, to try their luck in the private sector. The youngest and most ambitious may take up the offer. The others, in the absence of any obligation, are more likely to stick to their job for life until retirement. Whether their advantageous pension scheme will have been merged with all the others by then, whether everyone in work in the public or private sector, or self-employed, will get the same basic pension for the same level of contribution remains to be seen. Macron had promised that reform for 2019 but its timetable is already slipping. For the time being, railway workers are about to go on strike to defend an employment contract that was initially drafted in 1920 and are protesting about the possible effects of greater competition on the railways. As to the long march towards greater integration of the Euro area and the EU it will only happen on terms that France finds acceptable - and that are not too far removed from its own proposals. As always, most other Europeans would say.
It seems fairly safe to assume therefore that, like a top-heavy super-tanker, the French ship of state will sail slowly on, changing course only if it risks running out of fuel or is rocked by an occasional violent storm. Jean Monnet was indeed wise not to attach any deadline to his determination to bring about “an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe.”