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Planning in France

A number of European nations have seen planning as a way to address regional imbalances. One such nation is France. Since the nineteenth century, the Paris region has grown more vigorously than the rest of the nation, and it contains disproportionate amounts of the nation's higher educational establishments, cultural resources, and administrative activities. It even contained a disproportionate share of the nation's total manufacturing employment. In many periods the Paris region accounted for a large share of the nation's total population growth. Shortly after World War II, a French geographer, Jean Francois Gravier, wrote the very influential Paris et le desert Frangais [Paris and the French Desert]. His main point was that

Two views of La Defense, a major public-private office development about four kilometers from the center of Paris. La Grande Arche (top), built to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution (1789), is intended to be a twentieth-century version of the Arc de Triomphe. It is a cube 106 meters (347 feet) on edge. The sides contain offices whose windows face the interior of the cube.

the disproportionate growth of the Paris region left the rest of the nation impoverished and that something ought to be done about it.13

In response to this problem of Parisian dominance, the French government identified eight growth poles.14 The actual term is metropole d'equilibre, denoting the idea that these regions will balance the economic and demographic mass of the Paris region, the lie de France. Each of these poles consists of a city or two or three closely located cities.

These cities form a ring several hundreds of miles in diameter. The eastern part of the ring lies close to the French-German border, and the western part extends to France's Atlantic coast. The northern part extends to the English Channel, and the southern part to the Mediterranean, France's Cote d'Azur. For the last five decades it has been national policy to strengthen these poles relative to the Paris region.

Since the late 1960s, successive French governments have systematically

sought to divert public investment into these poles, thus strengthening their

economic potential and acting in turn as a device to attract private capital.15

Specifically, Peter Hall notes that investment in higher education facilities, in the nation's limited-access highway system, and in its highspeed passenger rail system has all been used to favor the growth of these regional centers.16

In addition to strengthening other regions relative to the Paris region, French planners also sought to divert growth from the city itself into other parts of the Paris region. Thus public funds were invested in building satellite towns and peripheral development areas. The plan was supported by the building of a regional rail system, the RER, and a circumferential highway.

The sort of national approach to planning just described, in which the planning authorities consciously make national economic and demographic (in the sense of where people will live) policy, is feasible only in a very centralized state. Historically the French central government was very strong, and local governments, though very numerous, were very weak. In fact, many local administrators, called prefets, were appointed by the central government. Planning was a top-down process, with the national government laying out the big picture and the local governments filling in the details, pursuant to approval by the national government. In the early 1980s there was major political reorganization in France, and some political power was decentralized.17 For example, appointed prefets were replaced by elected officials. But compared with that of the United States, the French system is still highly centralized. The United States has had no national planning body since the abolition of the NRPB in 1943 (see Chapter 4).

Not only is planning much more centralized and the power of government to control land use much greater than in the United States, but the government also exercises power over development in another way. A great deal of urban development is handled by development organizations of mixed private and public ownership, the Societe d'Economie Mixte (SEM).

The new town of Creteil. Built at the end of one line of the Paris Metro, it is within easy commuting range of the center of the city. Above, the town center. Below, mixed residential and commercial development along the shore of an artificial lake.

The historic district of Annecy, France. Above, the canal, once used for transportation of freight, is preserved as a scenic attraction. Below, preservation of old buildings and protection from vehicular traffic help keep street life lively in this commercial area.

Thus there is not the separation between development interests on the one hand and government on the other.

Normally the public partner has a majority shareholding in the company. Thus political control is retained [by government] while the company structure allows for greater operational flexibility, free from the bureaucratic rules of town hall. The SEM may be set up by the commune [local government] or by a private party.18

The arrangement is consistent with the French vision of the proper relationship between state and private sector—a mixed system in which the relationship between government and capital is a cooperative one. In the decades after World War II, the French national planning style was termed "indicative planning," in which government and industry jointly set goals and policies.

At the local level, urban planning in France, as in many other nations of Western Europe, often has a somewhat different emphasis than in the United States. There is often more emphasis on the fine texture of the urban fabric—on historic preservation, on the details of urban design, and on pedestrian-friendly environments. There is often more emphasis on spaces that promote interaction between people. Where the design choice must favor either the pedestrian or the automobile, there is more of a tendency to favor the former than is usually the case in the United States.

In recent years observers of the French, like those of the British, have seen an increase in "property-led development." In France several factors have contributed to this increase. The decentralization of political power in the early 1980s made local governments more important decision makers in the development game. At the same time there were cutbacks in the flow of revenues from the national to the local governments. The response of local governments was to begin competing for commercial investment. The analogy with the American situation (see Chapter 13 on economic development planning) is quite strong.

The Problem of the Banlieues. France's largest planning problem at present is probably that of the banlieues.19 This term translates literally as suburbs but, as generally used, refers to an area outside of the city characterized by a large amount of subsidized housing, much of it high rise, and a high rate of unemployment, crime, and drug use—an area where much of the population is disaffected from the larger society. Banlieue to a considerable degree translates into "urban ghetto" in American usage, except that the banlieue, though urban in character, is not located inside the city. In many banlieues a majority of the residents are not French born, but are African, a majority Muslim. Thus to the alienation that comes from poverty and unemployment is added an alienation that comes from ethnic and religious differences.

The African connection is in large measure due to France's colonial history. In the post-World War II period France was the colonial power in all or part of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Libya in North Africa. South of the Sahara France was the colonial power in all or part of Benin, Mali, Niger, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Chad, Central African Republic, and Republic of Congo. Even after decolonization, primarily in the 1950s and 1960s, France retained strong economic and political ties with many former colonies.

Much of the housing in many banlieues was built in the period 1950 to 1970 and originally occupied by members of the French working and middle classes. They have since moved out to more prosperous places and a poorer and largely immigrant population has moved in behind them.

In 2005 riots occurred in many banlieues and were put down by strict policing, but they put the banlieue question on the political agenda in an unmistakable way and subsequently a large amount of funding was appropriated to improve conditions. There have been riots in the banlieues since then but not on the same scale. Rioting and other disturbances in the banlieues have been referred to as the "French Intifada" by analogy with Palestinian resistance to Israeli rule in the West Bank.

There is a clear parallel with the United States after the wave of urban riots that occurred there in the mid- to late 1960s and the U.S. response. Some of the most dysfunctional high rises were torn down and funding was provided for a range of social services.

The banlieue problem has not gone away. One thing that would reduce it would be increasing employment for banlieue residents, particularly younger ones who now run at extremely high unemployment rates. But in France, going back well before the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis, employment growth has been slow. One might think that perhaps an American-style affirmative action program for the employment of banlieue residents would help somewhat, but that idea violates strongly held political beliefs in France that are opposed to the idea of group rights as distinct from individual rights. One possible approach is trying to physically break up the concentration of social problems in the banlieue, by analogy to techniques like scattered site housing in the U.S. But the banlieues are very large. France's African population, which makes up much of the banlieue population, is estimated at about 5 million and is growing both through immigration and a higher birth rate than for the French population as a whole. Dispersal seems like a very small instrument for dealing with such a large and complicated issue.

The problem of the banlieue transcends the traditional scope of planning and raises questions for the whole society about immigration, macroeconomic policy, labor market policy, and many other social issues. At the extreme it is not a big stretch to say that alienation, isolation, and unemployment in the banlieues have a link to terrorism and horrific acts like the Charlie Hebdo killings in January 2015 and the even larger terrorist attack in

November 2015. Banlieue-type problems are not unique to France, but are to be found in many Western European nations. The difference is largely one of scale. In France it is particularly large for the historical reason noted above.

 
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