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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: La région parisienne a toujours constitué un cas à part

by Emmanuel Bellanger

The Paris Region has Always Been a Case Apart

Translated Friday 7 March 2008, by Nic Whyley

Emmanuel Bellanger, Historian at the IDHE and Research Associate at the Centre for Twentieth Century Social History, part of the University of Paris-I [1].

An administrative split is never neutral. During the French Revolution, when the lawmakers introduced measures to divide France into départments, the main aim was to bring its citizens closer to its administration. Yet such rationalisation is flawed in its principles when it comes to Paris. The département of Paris is an exception to the common law. Not only does the French capital lack a mayor at the helm of its executive branch, but it is administered by two different bodies: the prefecture of the Seine and the prefecture of police. This revolutionary Jacobin stronghold has, in fact, become the smallest département in France, measuring just 476 km².

And the small number of towns and hamlets encircling the capital will soon be known collectively as Greater Paris. But the real inconsistency, in terms of administration, lies in the creation of a second département, the Seine-et-Oise. This will surround that of the capital, an area which, in the past, has been known for its revolutionary fever. This ring-shaped hybrid space comprising 691 hamlets has its préfecture town council in Versailles. There means that there is no centrality. It is under-equipped and under-administrated. While demographic densification, industrialisation and urbanisation are effectively going to bring Paris closer to its banlieues (suburbs), forcing it to share interests and making it benefit from policies drawn up by the government of the agglomeration (those of the conseil général of the Seine), the Seine-et-Oise will still remain the worst-off in all the region. The Seine département is the richest, the most densely populated and the best served by public transport. It’s also the most segregated. Its political singularity takes its shape from the sprawl of a red banlieue, an area which, in 1936, saw its people vote a communist president into the Seine’s conseil general. This president was Georges Marrane, the then-Mayor of Ivry. The département is consistent, a characteristic it draws from the solidarity between Paris and its banlieues.

The administrative reform of 1964 marked a fundamental break where the capital split, in as far as geography would allow, from its nearby banlieue. Undoubtedly, this constituted a historic restitution in respect to the great banlieue. Still it doesn’t escape certain political considerations: the French Communist Party and certain Gaullist groups were then some of the first partisan forces on the scene. The anchorage of these elected communists and their subsequent progression made people fear a return to 1936. The départementalisation (breaking up of France into departments) of 1964 went some way to reinforcing the institutional seat of the PCF (parti communiste français), who have remained without interruption in the conseil général of the Seine-Saint-Denis from 1968 to the present day, and in the Val-de-Marne with an interruption of just six years. The reform of 1975 and the election of a Mayor for Paris in 1977 also served to reinforce the autonomy of the capital, and less worryingly, the interests of the agglomeration. Therefore the Paris Region has always been a case apart. Today the legitimity of Paris’ départements and of its nearby banlieues has become the subject of much debate. The return of a Greater Paris region will certainly stumble on the resistance of local powers, and will also perhaps run into collective claims that it belongs to these territories, those of the popular department 93 or even those of the bourgeois department 92. To do away with them is in some way a means of testing the existence of a collective conscience within each département, which, it is said, has existed for more than forty years.

[1Most recent published works : Paris/Banlieues : conflits et solidarités, with Annie Fourcaut and Mathieu Flonneau (Créaphis) and Villes de banlieues, with Jacques Girault (published by Créaphis).

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