In unitary States like France and the United Kingdom, which have historically been characterised by centralisation, devolved authorities and notably local/territorial authorities cannot enjoy absolute autonomy. Those authorities certainly have self-organisational and decision-making powers, yet they are still subject to central government/State control.
In 1979 the Conservatives, under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, came to power in the UK. In 1981, the Socialists, under the leadership of François Mitterrand, came to power in France. It would be a truism to state that the policies of the British and French Governments have diverged in many respects. This is notably true of their policy on Local Government. However, for both Thatcher and Mitterrand, Local Government was a key issue of their general policy: for Thatcher, it was essential to control local spending centrally; for Mitterrand, it was time to put an end to the French tradition of centralised power which had become "the most backward mode of organisation, decision and implementation" . Echoing General de Gaulle's speech of March 24, 1968, President Mitterrand declared on July 15, 1981 that "France needed a strong and centralised power to make herself. Today she needs a decentralised power to keep herself". Decentralisation had indeed been "la grande affaire du septennat’’ i.e. one of the major institutional reforms instigated by the French Left which, far from being put into question by the Right Wing - despite its early imperfections - has received general consensus. Of all the reforms undertaken under the Mitterrand administration, that of decentralisation had immediate, profound and irreversible effect. The Socialists wanted to mark a clear and swift change from previous law. Less than a year after his coming into office at Beauvau Square, Gaston Defferre, the Secretary for Home Affairs and Decentralisation, asked the President of the Republic to promulgate the Act of March 2, 1982 on the Rights and Freedoms of Local Authorities, which is in itself a sort of "constitution" for local authorities and a "code" of decentralisation. How was it possible to engage in such an immense task in such a short period of time and succeed where others had failed before? In 1985, in an interview with American sociologist Vivien Schmidt, Gaston Defferre was to explain that he reversed the logic of the decentralisation process. The logical process would have been to transfer powers to local authorities together with budget allocations prior to transferring new powers. Instead, Defferre chose to grant new powers to local authorities straight away. As he put it, "I knew that, once the local authorities had the power, they would ask for the rest; and this is exactly what happened". With this strategy, Defferre made the whole process politically irreversible and opened the way to a long-term dynamic transformation of the institutional structure of the State and the underlying thinking behind this.
Eighteen years after the first failed attempts to implement the devolution process in Scotland and Wales, the British Labour party came to power in May 1997 armed with an ambitious programme of constitutional reforms including a devolution of powers to a Scottish Parliament and Executive branch, and an Assembly in Wales. In parallel, the Good Friday Agreement concluded in April 1998 and approved by referendum the following month, opened the way to important constitutional reforms in Northern Ireland. Following approval of the devolution bills by separate referenda in September 1997, the Government of Wales Act and the Scotland Act were adopted by the British Parliament in July and September 1998. The first members of the Scottish Parliament and of the Welsh Assembly were elected in May 1999. In Northern Ireland, the devolution process was delayed by a number of problems related to the peace process and the disarmament of the IRA leading to the suspension of the Northern Irish Assembly on four occasions between 1998 and 2007 when its powers were ultimately reinstated in May 2007. Twenty years on, there is no doubt that the process of devolution in the UK initiated by the three 1998 Acts can be regarded as literally irreversible (although fears that the British central goverment intended to take back some of the devolved powers following Brexit have been reignited).
Looking at the similarities and differences in both countries, this paper intends to offer an overview of how decentralisation and devolution have evolved and are effectively working in France and in the UK, from national to municipal levels. After explaining the legal framework and then the process of decentralisation and devolution, the devolved governance of cities like London and Paris will be examined.
Dadomo, C. (2018, December). London and Paris, a tale of two cities: The story of decentralisation in France and the UK. Paper presented at Special Mechanism and Policy for the Development of Ho Chi Minh City from the Legal Perspective, Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam