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The French cities

      Paris - Lyon - Marseille - Lille - Bordeaux - Nice - Nantes - Toulouse  

After centuries during which centralisation, at both the political and economic levels, had been a key feature of France, the end of the Second World War found the country with huge disparities between the regions; for instance, there was an excessive concentration of power and resources in Paris - at that time home to over 15% of the population -, a divide between the rich, industrial, north-east and the poorer south-west, which had remained largely rural, and a general contrast between urban and rural areas (where the level of development was noticeably lower).  Since the mid-sixties, governments have been implementing an active town and country planning and regional development policy to level out these imbalances and encourage a more even distribution both of the population and of economic activity. 

Following the Second World War, recognition of this serious regional imbalance led the government in 1949 to set up a regional development agency, the Direction de l’aménagement du territoire.  Thereafter, the authorities began to have a clearer understanding of these disparities that became more complex as economic changes affected the country.  In 1955, the Government defined a number of regions for planning purposes and instituted structures and specialised funding instruments.  DATAR (Délégation à l’aménagement du territoire et à l’action régionale – town and country planning and regional development agency), established in 1963, became the state’s chief instrument in this sphere.  It pilots development, assisted by various local bodies with expertise in areas such as tourist facilities, industrial and urban  development and since 1997 the relevant minister has been able to draw on its services.  There is also the Interministerial Committee on Regional Development (CIAT), which decides on objectives and takes decisions, and a Regional Development Fund (FIAT - fonds d’intervention pour l’aménagement du territoire), which provides finance for development initiatives, alongside other partners such as local authorities and state-owned and private companies.  Initially, central government determined regional development objectives within the framework of the Plan and ensured overall control of the operations. 

DATAR conducts several different types of operation.  It coordinates large-scale projects to encourage economic development in particular regions - as was the case in the ‘sixties and early ‘seventies when tourist facilities were improved on the Languedoc and Aquitaine coasts and major winter sports resorts built in the Alps.  It was also involved in the development of the docks and industrial estates at Dunkirk and Fos, designed to promote heavy industry in those coastal areas by improving access for imported raw materials and energy products. From 1964 onwards, DATAR also attempted to reduce the supremacy of Paris by encouraging the development in eight regional centres not only of industry, but also of high-level services such as universities and teaching hospitals.  To restabilize the structure of the conurbations, it also contributed to the building of new towns in the areas surrounding Paris (Marne-la-Vallée and Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines), Lille (Villeneuve d’Ascq) and Lyon (L’Isle d’Abeau).  In addition to these direct interventions, measures were taken to restructure the country’s economy.  Accordingly, decentralisation of industry and services was promoted by giving grants to companies locating in specific regions and the number of industrial jobs rose sharply in the areas around the Paris basin, such as the Centre and Picardy, and Brittany. By contrast, businesses wishing to set up in other regions, notably the Ile-de-France, must obtain the authorities’ approval and face fiscal disincentives.

The state has also set an example by decentralising some of its own services:  bank notes are now manufactured near Clermont-Ferrand, whilst the meteorological office has moved to Toulouse.  The net result of these various initiatives has been the creation of over 600,000 jobs in industry in the regions surrounding the Paris basin and a substantial increase in amenities in the regional metropolises, much better served by public transport.  Elsewhere, there have been some radical changes: the regions in the west and south, which previously had little industry, are seeing more rapid development than the old industrial regions of the north and east.  The picture is marred only by the continuing drift from the countryside. 

Over the last few decades, over 40% of communes in rural areas have seen their population decline.  This is particularly true of the sparsely populated area forming a diagonal band stretching from the Central Pyrenees to the Ardennes, and of the Southern Alps, Corsica and the hinterland of Brittany.  To combat the population drain, the government, helped by EC subsidies, has been granting substantial aid to farmers and encouraging additional economic activity, particularly silviculture and tourism.  Nature reserves have been created in some of these regions with a view to preserving the ecological balance and attracting tourists. Slower rates of growth from 1974 onwards and the economic crisis hitting many of the old industrial sectors, such as textiles and steel, led the Government to revise its regional development objectives, especially as the funds available to achieve them were decreasing.  The emphasis shifted from large-scale development schemes to initiatives intended primarily to facilitate the restructuring of the former industrial heartlands through environment improvement projects, retraining the workforce and bringing in new economic activities.  The state has been encouraging French and foreign car-manufacturers to locate factories in the Nord region and Lorraine and, to limit the magnetic pull of regional capitals, it gave priority first to schemes in medium-sized towns and then to rural areas.  The authorities have also had to confront two worsening problems - rural depopulation and the difficulties of some problem urban areas.

A new town policy

New guidelines have now been defined for town and country planning and regional development. The Outline Act of 4 February 1995, amended by the bill adopted by the Council of Ministers in 1998 and presented to Parliament in 1999, stresses the need for sustainable development and adopts a new approach to planning with the aim of achieving a better balance between the roles of central government and local authorities.  A budget of 1.8 billion francs ($0.3 billion) has been allocated to this task.
In the years leading up to 2020, the priority for development policy will be to reduce the disparities between rural and urban areas.  The first aim is not only to pursue the effort to stem the depopulation of over 400 rural cantons, but also to support still populated, but vulnerable rural areas in order to prevent the disintegration of the fabric of rural life.  Accordingly, it has been decided to halt the decline of local public services and encourage a broadening of employment possibilities.  A fund for managing natural habitats in rural areas will also be established.
The new guidelines also include the renovation of urban areas (inner cities, industrial estates undergoing restructuring and overseas territories, etc.) which is vital to improve social harmony.  Initiated in the ‘seventies, the urban regeneration policy was expanded in the ‘eighties and especially since 1990.  The primary aim is to improve the urban environment, by renovating housing, creating parks and open spaces and providing more community facilities.  The number of schemes encouraging local job creation initiatives is also being stepped up.

Sustainable development is an integral part of town and country planning (see Ch. 2), which aims to restore a balance between the development of urban and country areas by strengthening the local communities shaped by geography, history and economic factors.  The geographical framework for this development has been modified and now has three levels: regions, conurbations and pays (localities or groups of communes).  Sharing geographical, cultural, economic or social characteristics, these now seventy groups of communes can work together on joint intercommunal development plans.  Conurbations are also being encouraged to organise cooperation on an intercommunal basis.

Finally, as the 20th century draws to a close, France is thinking in European terms, and no longer only national ones.  Today French regions are far less likely to be competing among themselves than with their European counterparts such as Flanders, Bad Würtemburg, Bavaria and Lombardy, with which they are in fact not just competing, but also developing cooperation agreements.  The same holds true for cities:  Paris is no longer in competition with Lyon, Lille or Marseille, but must instead vie with London, Brussels, Frankfurt and will soon also have to do so with Berlin.  Consequently, the French capital is striving to increase its influence and attract the major foreign decision-makers and the headquarters of multinational companies by offering them tax incentives and developing office space, hotels and conference facilities.  To counterbalance Paris’ increasing importance, there are also plans to stimulate development around a dozen regional cities (Lyon, Marseille, Lille, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, Rennes, Nancy, Metz, Nantes, Toulouse, Grenoble and Clermont-Ferrand) which have the potential to become European and international centres, because of their tertiary infrastructures (e.g. higher education and research establishments), communications networks and other amenities.
The new approach also involves identifying the new spheres on which, if there is to be development, attention must be focused, such as education, research and new information technologies which allow professional mobility.




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