Anyone could be forgiven for being confused about what is going on with Le Grand Paris, Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential ambition to reinvent Greater Paris for the future. This week, Sarkozy gave a speech at the Cité de l’Architecture marking four years since his initial speech, in the same venue, announcing Le Grand Paris. A perfect opportunity for a summary of where we stand.
It all started four years ago, on September 17th, 2007, at the inauguration of the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine. Nicolas Sarkozy, who had been President of France for four months, declared:
Regarding the Paris region, I would like us to work together, beyond our differences, on a new global program for greater Paris. […] Look at the great things that were done fifty or sixty years ago. They were not afraid to confront the future. The question for us is not to think about the six months to come but about the century that is beginning. Forty years after the approach launched by General de Gaulle and Prefect Paul Delouvrier, we must repair the errors of the past – indeed, there were errors – and seek to create real towns in our suburbs, with public spaces, services, and simply places for sociability. We must integrate these towns better to the capital by the appropriate means of communication. […] To facilitate this reflection, I would like, in concert with all the relevant local governments, starting with the City of Paris, for eight to ten architecture firms to work on a prospective urban and landscape diagnosis of Greater Paris at the horizon of twenty, thirty, or forty years.
As context for this Presidential initiative, it is important to know that the planning of the Paris region was far from a blank slate. Paris has had an approved regional plan since 1939, regularly revised through a well-defined process. There were already at least two organizations dedicated to the urban planning of the Paris region: the Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme de la Région Ile-de-France (IAURIF), which has existed since 1960, and the Agence Parisienne d’Urbanisme, which was created in 1967. One could wonder why the President was proposing to tackle a problem for which there already existed processes and organizations. On the other hand, there is a French tradition of Presidential projects for Paris: Pompidou’s art center, the series of buildings built under Mitterand, the Musée du Quai Branly initiated by Jacques Chirac. If Sarkozy wanted to make his mark on the city through regional planning, that could be a novel and welcome approach, more appropriate to a global and ecologically-aware age than some new monument. In any case, a new injection of ambition and fresh ideas could not be a bad thing.
There is another piece of background that made President Sarkozy’s initiative more contentious. France is traditionally a highly-centralized country. But in the early 1980s there was a drive toward decentralization, with important responsibilities being passed down to the various levels of local government: municipalities, départements and regions. Since 1995, the Île-de-France region has lead responsibility for preparing the regional plan, known as the Schéma Directeur de la Région Île-de-France (SDRIF). In fact, after three years of work, the Île-de-France regional council had just approved a new regional plan, which now only needed to clear some final hurdles before ratification. Some observers wondered if Sarkozy’s initiative did not amount to reneging on decentralization for the Paris region. Also, one couldn’t help but wonder if the fact that the Île-de-France government was in the hands of the Socialists, Sarkozy’s political opponents, was completely alien to the initiative.
On March 18th, 2008, Sarkozy went further. According to the country’s institutional structure, the national government’s interests at the regional level are looked after by Regional Prefects. In addition, Sarkozy created a new ministerial-level position for Greater Paris, and appointed a prominent Centrist politician, Christian Blanc, to occupy it. This only comforted those who feared that Le Grand Paris was a way for the national government to wrestle back control of the Île-de-France region.
The preparation of the consultation for Le Grand Paris continued its course as laid out by the President. An oversight committee was created. And on June 4th, 2008, the ten interdisciplinary teams that had made it through the selection process were officially commissioned to begin their work.
In parallel to all this activity by the national government, the ratification process for the regional plan was going ahead. After a mammoth consultation, the inquiry commission submitted its report on June 11th, 2008, with a unanimous favorable opinion subject to some amendments. The slightly-modified plan went back to the regional council on September 28th, 2008 and was again approved. The next step was for the national government to pass the plan on to the State Council for its opinion on the legality of the plan so it could go into effect. But time passed, and this purely procedural step was not accomplished. It seemed quite clear that the national government was taking advantage of the procedure to hold up the ratification of the plan while it worked on its own ideas…
In March 2009, while the ten teams were finishing their work, former Prime Minister Edouard Balladur published a report, at the request of President Sarkozy, on the structure of France’s local governments. Among his conclusions, Balladur opined that Paris should merge with the three départements that immediately surround it to form a single local government. This is universally acknowledged common sense – there is no way greater Paris can continue to be managed as the narrowly-defined City of Paris (2.2 million inhabitants) plus 1,280 other municipalities, plus seven other departmental governments and, for good measure, a regional government. But the fact that Balladur’s proposed reform is obviously nothing but one small step in the right direction was not enough to make it happen. The plan has been shelved for the time being.
Now, to discover what the ten teams had to propose, go to Part 2: The International Consultation