Alsatians are set to decide on an administrative reform of their region. Supporters hope for more efficient structures and more influence in Paris and Europe. Opponents warn of "the German model."
The mood is good in the auditorium number 324 at the Institute for Political Sciences at Strasbourg University. Some 100 people have gathered to discuss plans to form a new so-called "Alsace Council." At the forefront of the discussion are one supporter and one opponent.
Alsace has seen weeks of election campaign ahead of a vote on Sunday (07.04.2013). The towns in this region in eastern France are covered with posters, campaign commercials are shown on regional television, and all households have been supplied with an information package.
The Alsace Council would be based here in Strasbourg
The supporters of the idea said the Alsace Council would simplify political processes and make administration in the region more efficient. Currently, three parliaments and three presidents are responsible for dealing with the matters concerning the Alsatian population, which is made up of some 2 million people. Both departments, the Upper and Lower Rhine, have assemblies, and then there is the regional assembly of Alsace. After the merger there would only be one parliament and one executive for Alsace, France's smallest region in terms of size.
The goal: a modern administrative body
Jacques Fernique, a parliamentarian from the Green Party, is one of the supporters of the project. Sitting on the podium at Strasbourg University, he defends the reform plans that the region's and departments' conservative presidents have launched. He argued that the Alsace Council would, hopefully, end the historically grown chaos of competencies between departments and region. He makes his case by giving the audience an example: The departments, which date back to Napoleonic times, are in charge of social matters. But the region is responsible for anything concerning professional training.
Complicated dual structures also exist in regional public transport, Fernique pointed out. The region is in charge of trains, but the two departments run bus lines. That's why the election campaign is all about streamlining and making cuts, also in the field of politics. The idea is to have about 10 percent fewer seats for parliamentarians in the newly merged assembly. Fernique said he also hopes that the merger will gain Alsace more political weight - in the dialogue with both Paris and France's European partners.
But parliamentarian Pernelle Richardot from the Socialist Party said those hopes are exaggerated. She said she is against the plan and that negotiations have meant far too many political compromises already. The new institution would be set up in Strasbourg, the region's capital, and the parliamentarians would also hold their assemblies there. But the president and the executive would be based about 80 kilometers (50 miles) away in Colmar as a concession to southern Alsace.
Fear of French federalism
Representatives from extremist parties have also rejected the plan. The regional branch of far-right radical party National Front initially supported the merger, but after a call to order by the headquarters in Paris, they now vehemently reject it. National Front chairwoman Marine Le Pen dismissed the Alsace Council as a "nightmare." A merger, she said, would mean an attack on the nation's unity - supported by the European Union which, according to her, misses no opportunity to weaken its member states.
Le Pen wasn't the only one railing at the planned reform of Alsatian administration. Right-wing extremist groups from southern France have allegedly campaigned in Alsace urging the population not to "run into the evil Germans' arms," according to Kai Littmann, editor-in chief of cross-border Internet magazine eurojournal.net. The journalist said he has frequently come across traces of similar irrational fear-mongering in the election campaign. In reality, Littmann said, the idea to have Alsace leave France is an absurd thought that only "a handful of idiots" still support anyway.
Robert Hertzog, a professor of law from Strasbourg University, was similarly astonished at some of the arguments brought forward by parties at each end of the political spectrum.
"No to austerity," has been the anti-merger slogan used by the left-wing alliance. It argued that if the region gains political weight politicians could be inspired to follow the German example and introduce a labor market reform.
"That has nothing to do with the administrative reform," said Hertzog, adding that the Alsace Council wouldn't turn France into a federal state overnight. "There is no legislator in Alsace. That means we can't make our own laws." The legal expert stressed that Paris will continue to determine labor laws. Parliamentarians in Paris will also decide about the organization of the new institution if the plan goes through: how many parliamentarians the Alsace Council would have, what the structure would look like, and which competencies it would have. But for that to happen, Alsatians would first have to approve the plan on Sunday.
Polls suggest approval rates of between 60 and 70 percent
An important hurdle for the success of the referendum is the required participation rate. A minimum of 25 percent of eligible voters in each department have to approve the reform. But voter turnout is estimated to be low, and so the Alsace Council could fall through - despite predicted approval rates of between 60 and 70 percent.
At the end of the discussion at Strasbourg University, many questions have been answered, but the established battle lines remain.
"I will vote no on Sunday," says a law student who supports the Socialist party, while 20-year-old student Mathilde Karceles, an active member of the Central Party, said she still supports the reform. "I'm against what you call 'Pariasianism' in France. It would be better if the regions got more power and more strength," she said.
Like many other politicians she added that Alsace could become a role model for all 22 regions in France. After all, she said, the continent's future lies in a "Europe of regions." Political parties in two other French regions, Normandie and Bretagne, have already started the debate about what would be similar reforms to those planned in Alsace.