The administrative geography of France is complicated. It is easy to get lost in the tangle of régions, départements, communautés d’agglomération, communautés urbaines, arrondissements, cantons and quartiers. To complicate things further, in the last forty years there have been significant changes in the administrative structure, and it is clear that some of these changes are still in the process of implementation. Using the internet to try and navigate one’s way through this maze is made more difficult by the fact that websites relating to organisational entities that are now defunct or moribund are still littered around all over the place. Similarly, any publication that tries to present a clear picture of the current structure is likely to be out of date very quickly. I’m learning as I go, and what follows is as much an aide-memoire for myself as anything.
The highest level of local administration in France is la région. Regions are a relatively new development in French territorial organisation. They came into being as part of a sweeping process of functional and territorial decentralisation initiated by the government in 1982, following François Mitterrand’s election to the presidency the previous year. The 1982 law set up directly elected regional councils with the power to elect their executive and manage the region’s finances. They levy their own taxes and, in return, receive a decreasing part of their budget from the central government, which gives them a portion of the taxes it levies. Regions lack separate legislative authority and therefore cannot write their own statutory law, but the 1982 law also devolved to the regional authorities many functions hitherto belonging to the central government, in particular economic and social development, regional planning, education and cultural matters.
Between 1982 and 2015, there were twenty-two regions in metropolitan France and five overseas regions (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Réunion and Mayotte, the latter becoming a region in 2011). Corsica is classified as a metropolitan region. In this original regional configuration, Poitiers was part of the region of Poitou-Charentes.
In 2014, the French parliament passed a law reducing the number of metropolitan regions from twenty-two to thirteen with effect from 2016. This meant the merging of several regions into new larger regions. (The ‘Avant/Après’ map from Le Nouvel Observateur has a clever little slider gizmo that shows the before and after status of the regions.) The new law formed interim names for the larger regions by combining the names of their constituents, thus the region created by combining Aquitaine, Poitou-Charentes and Limousin was temporarily called Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-Charentes. Catchy, isn’t it? Permanent names were confirmed in 2016, at which point Aquitaine-Limousin-Poitou-CharentesbecameNouvelle-Aquitaine.
This reorganisation is reminiscent of the UK county reorganisation undertaken by the Heath government in 1972–74 and, as far as I can tell, it is about as popular. There was a lot of resentment about the new name from the residents of Limousin and Poitou-Charentes. It probably doesn’t help to remind them that both Aquitaine and Grande-Aquitaine were at one point seriously considered as the new region’s name. At the time, Alain Rousset, the president of the new region, pointed out that when the old Aquitaine had previously subsumed the identities of Périgord and Pays Basque, they had not disappeared, a remark that must have gone down really well with Basque separatists. For me, one problem with something like Nouvelle-Aquitaine is that, apart from in administrative terms, it is difficult to visualise it as an entity. It’s just too big. Culturally, and historically it seems meaningless.
Nevertheless, as they say, here are some facts. Nouvelle-Aquitaine, the largest of the eighteen regions of France, is located in the southwest of the country. It is the largest region in France by area, with a territory slightly larger than that of Austria. It covers 84,061 km2 (32,456 sq. mi.) – or one-eighth of the country. It has approximately 5.9 million inhabitants, putting it fourth in size after Île-de-France with 12.1 million. There’s an interesting French regional population breakdown here.
Nouvelle-Aquitaine comprises twelve departments: the four that used to make up Poitou-Charentes (Charente, Charente-Maritime, Deux-Sèvres and Vienne) along with Haute-Vienne, Corrèze, Creuse, Dordogne, Gironde, Landes, Lot-et-Garonne and Pyrénées-Atlantiques. Its main cities are its capital, Bordeaux (population 1.14 million), Bayonne (283,000), Limoges (282,000), Poitiers (254,000), Pau (240,000) and La Rochelle (205,000).
I think that’s enough about le région, for now at least.
It’s difficult at this stage, certainly for a newcomer, to decide how beneficial or otherwise the regional reorganisation will be for the people of Poitiers. The city was the capital of Poitou-Charentes, and inevitably there is bound to be some leakage of status and influence to Bordeaux. A friend has mentioned a drift of people towards Bordeaux for work reasons. Instinctively one feels that being a big fish in a smaller pond had its advantages. On the other hand, small can be beautiful. Poitiers has its heritage sites and its prestigious university. The mixture of tourists and students gives the place a lively atmosphere. Its housing is relatively cheap (certainly compared to Bordeaux), and it has fast rail links to Bordeaux, Paris and La Rochelle on the coast. All of these, to me, make it a very attractive place to live. Time will tell.