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Alsace paves the Way for French Decentralization

As the highly centralized French political system seeks to move influence from Paris to the regions, Strasbourg and the Alsace are emerging as models for the success decentralization can bring.

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The Pierre Pfimlin Bridge links France's Alsace region with Germany's Baden-Württemburg.

Once at the center of the German-French tug-of-war for the Alsace-Lorraine region, Strasbourg these days has a lot going for it.

Besides being home to the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice, it now shares a peaceful and prosperous border with Germany, which has long influenced its culture and history. It also has some of the best cuisine in Europe. Less known, however, is that it's at the center of one of the most dramatic shifts in modern French political history: the decentralization of power from Paris to the regional level.

For seven years Adrian Zeller, the 63-year-old longtime mayor of the city of Saverne, has also served as president of the Alsatian Regional Council, a role similar to that of premier or governor. He's also a leading champion of devolving decision-making.

"France has a very strong centralized culture, in which ministers, intellectual circles and so on all believe that ideas come from Paris and that the provinces are somewhat backward," Zeller told German public broadcaster SWR. "We really have to fight against this culture and say: Promote the regions, that’s modern."

Federalism vs. centralism

France’s centralized political culture differs greatly from Germany’s system of federalism, which splits competencies between Berlin and 16 federal states. In France, most decisions are taken by the federal government in Paris.

But that's slowly changing.

The first major wave of decentralization came in 1982, when then-President Francois Mitterand launched the process of administrative decentralization, creating 22 regional governments with very limited powers.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin

French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin

But it got a second boost last spring when French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin pushed through a constitutional amendment opening the door for greater regional authority over environmental and preservation policy, regional construction and infrastructure, tourism, education, health and economic development. Using that newfound authority to forge greater ties between the French regions and German states dominated the agenda of a Franco-German summit organized by Raffarin earlier this week.

The Alsatian model

For more than five years now, Paris has used the strategically well-positioned Alsace, with its common border with Germany and Switzerland, as a laboratory for its experiments in decentralization.

In 1997, Paris transferred responsibility for regional railways in the area to the Alsatian government. In the six years since, new lines, trains and schedules have been added and passenger numbers are up 35 percent.

Following this week’s summit, new emphasis is being placed on the cross-border Upper Rhine area. Berlin and Paris have pledged to declare the Strasbourg metropolitan area and neighboring Offenburg in the German state of Baden-Württemburg as a “Euro District”, the first-ever cross-border regional authority in Europe.

But officials haven’t yet laid out any concrete proposals for what the region’s responsibilities might be. The countries’ differing political structures could also stand in the way.

"The problem with the Euro District is that, though we want to be able to do a lot on the communal level, responsibilities for a number of areas are split between the state and federal level," said Günter Petry, mayor of the nearby German city Kehl. He noted that in Germany language and education issues are regulated by the state and both the federal and state government are responsible for security. In France, Paris is still responsible for most regional decision-making. "That’s why we would still need two separate governments," he said.

France's regional politicians, like Alsace's Zeller, say that greater ties between French and German regions will be difficult unless further decentralization occurs. Still, Zeller doesn't have any illusions about how quickly that process will unfold.

"In a country that has been politically centralized for 200 years, decentralization isn’t going to happen overnight," he said.

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