Legacy of French Socialists: Paris's lighter hold on regional reins

France's Socialists expect to be booted from government in next spring's elections, with much of their platform washed away in a rightist tide. Yet analysts say that during almost five years in power, President Franois Mitterrand has irreversibly altered a course set for the nation by the likes of Louis XIV, Robespierre, and Napoleon. He has loosened the stranglehold of the central government, and regional capitals, such as Rennes in Brittany, can breathe freer.

The new experience of local government has not been without problems. Besides the logistics of dismantling a huge centralized bureaucracy, the idea that regions will look after themselves goes against the egalitarian ideal that all of France should be governed the same way.

Yet the Socialists' reforms have been accepted in principle and future governments are unlikely to turn back.

``It's a considerable change,'' says Catherine Gr'emion, a sociologist. ``It's a great upheaval in government at the local level.''

In recent times, government has been structured so that the affairs of France's some 36,000 communities and 99 departments were supervised by a prefect appointed by Paris. The prefect could approve local budgets and rule on the legality of any local government act.

The guiding theory behind this centralization was to smooth any inequalities between regions. In practice, it meant power rested in the vast ministries in Paris.

If a mayor wanted a new cultural center for his town, he needed the approval of the prefect, who in turn usually needed the nod from someone in Paris. In theory, the rules were the same for everyone, but in fact the mayors with the right connections in Paris tended to win out.

The Socialist reforms have been sweeping. They severely curtail the prefect's powers and give new responsibilities to regional councils, including control over social services, management of some schools, and a lump-sum budget to spend as it wishes.

The biggest immediate change has been in the life of the local politician. Rather than blaming the Parisian bureaucracy when a project fails, mayors or departmental presidents must take the responsibility themselves. Many say this has made them more vigilant over government spending than the ministries in Paris ever were.

``It will no longer be possible for a council president or the mayor of a large city to behave as a mere channel of communication,'' says Claude Champaud, the unsuccessful righist candidate for mayor in Rennes' last election and a leading advocate of decentralization. ``In 20 years, a new breed of politician will be born.''

But some critics claim that the Socialists' decentralization initiatives have been half-baked.

While the physical plants of some schools are now under the control of the departmental council, the Ministry of Education still hires the teachers and decides the curriculum. Mr. Champaud complains that the reforms are merely a decentralization of the dirty or unpopular jobs.

There are other complaints. The local bureaucracies have grown, with no corresponding decrease at the federal level. Many say that cities and regions have been given new powers, but not the money to enforce them.

Decentralization has been attempted in one form or another by previous leaders, including former Presidents Charles de Gaulle and Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing. But their measures made little difference to the fundamental workings of the country.

There have been many opponents of devolution, who feared that weakening Paris would weaken France. ``There are several ways to kill a nation,'' said Michel Debr'e, prime minister to General de Gaulle. ``Regionalization is one of them.''

Still, the changes have begun and few analysts expect to see them reversed. The task now will be to digest and adjust the reforms.

Along with the abolition of the death penalty, decentralization will be the lasting legacy of the Socialist government, says Mr. Normand. ``The history of France will retain those two things,'' he declares. Then, with a shrug and a smile, he adds: ``I don't know about the rest.''

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