The Struggle for a Bigger Paris

In many cities, growth has led to a situation where the metropolitan area is considerably bigger than the city proper. Paris, where the city limits remain frozen as they were in 1860, is an extreme case of this phenomenon.

Today only 21% of dwellers of the Parisian “urban unit” live in the municipality of Paris, which covers a scant 4% of the metropolitan territory. This situation hampers policy development and implementation for the metropolis and is increasingly seen as an unnecessary handicap for Paris in the global competition among cities.

The question, in this election year, is whether Paris will be able to achieve its first expansion in more than 150 years, whether it will finally be able to give itself a government at the scale of the metropolis.

A Quick History, or How Expansion Got Stuck…

The city limits have evolved from a defensive issue to a tax issue to an issue of balance of democratic power bases. But throughout Paris’s history, the matter has always been eminently political and carried high financial stakes.

Plan of Paris in 1787 by Charles de Wailly, showing the successive city walls © La Parisienne de Photographie/Roger-Viollet

Until the seventeenth century, the limits of Paris were materialized by the city walls, which expanded roughly as the city grew. The critical issue then was committing the funds required for the walls to enclose the new areas undergoing development.

After Louis XIV made Paris a city without walls, the city limits gradually turned into a tax issue. The creation of a tax for all commercial goods entering Paris (the octroi) meant that there was an interest for the municipality to enclose as much of the city as possible, which led to an expansion of the city in the 1780s. The octroi was still the governing issue in 1860, when Georges-Eugène Haussmann led the annexation of what was, at the time, the “suburban zone,” creating the city limits substantially as we know them today. (For a graphic depiction of the evolution, see La création des 20 arrondissements de Paris)

The octroi was very negatively perceived by Parisians and had perverse effects on the development of the city, but it was of such importance in Paris’s budget that it remained in place until 1943. Once the areas outside the city limits became industrially developed, any further expansion of the octroi zone was politically and economically inconceivable.

Municipalities by political affiliation after the 1977 election (from Que reste-t-il de la banlieue rouge at

By the time the octroi was gone, expansion had become impossible for another reason. Many of the municipalities around Paris had become Communist Party strongholds, forming a “red ring” around the city proper. On one hand it was politically impossible to expand the national, and therefore Gaullist, administration of Paris to these red suburbs. On the other hand it was unthinkable to allow local democracy in an expanded Paris, with the risk that the city fall in the hands of the Left. The municipal structure was therefore left as it was, and the structure of the départements we know today was put in place in 1968.

Balance of power by Conseil Général

Even today, with a different political lay-out, the idea of expanding Paris is not so straightforward. Each of the four departements and 124 municipalities of the urban core of Paris constitutes a treasured power base. Most significantly, the dissolution of the four départements would imply the disappearance of the Right’s bastion of the Hauts-de-Seine, Nicolas Sarkozy’s political home base and the administrative unit of which his son, Jean Sarkozy, happens to be a vice-president.

A Clearly Dysfunctional Situation

Population of Municipality as a Proportion of Urban Area for Selected Cities

Since 1860, metropolitan Paris has grown from a population of 1.7 million to a population of 10.4 million. Other major cities have conducted consolidations: New York consolidated to its current size, 7.5 times the surface area of Paris, in 1898; Berlin was expanded to a territory even larger than that of New York in 1920; the administrative division of Greater London, 15 times the size of Paris, was created in 1965; Istanbul followed suit in 2004. Paris has reached a point where, as a municipality with responsibility for only a small portion of the metropolis, it is an outlier among comparable cities.

The Descartes Team's proposal for the structuring of the Paris metropolis

The architectural consultation for Le Grand Paris in 2009 played an important role in helping people understand that the city is to be managed as a whole, not according to archaic administrative limits (see this blog’s series on Le Grand Paris). For example the Decartes team, lead by Yves Lion, put together the provocative proposal at left of redefining the city as 20 sub-units of about half a million people each.

Nowadays, it has become intuitively clear to most Parisians that 1) the areas immediately surrounding the municipality are de facto part of Paris and 2) the governance structure for the Paris metropolis is doing more harm than good. Still, any concrete progress on Paris’s governance has proven excessively challenging to achieve.

Grand Paris as imagined by MVRDV for the Grand Paris consultation


A Sage Opines

In 2009, one of the most authoritative figures of the Right made a bold recommendation. In a report on France’s administrative organization requested by President Sarkozy, Edouard Balladur, a former Prime Minister and sort of political mentor to Sarkozy, stated flatly that “in any case, […] the institutional status quo in the Paris region cannot be […] seriously envisioned.” [p. 51] He called for a consolidation of Paris and the three surrounding départements into a single administrative entity, to be known as “Le Grand Paris.”

The Balladur Committee was in fact following the lead of Senator Philippe Dallier, who in his own report had put forward the same proposal. The new Grand Paris entity would replace the four départements of the urban core of Paris, while the existing municipalities would continue to exist. Dallier’s report did not specify the exact responsibilities of Le Grand Paris and the municipalities, but given how closely Dallier’s proposal is modeled on London, one can assume that he had in mind something along the lines of the split of responsibilities between the Greater London Authority and the boroughs.

Dallier had sufficient experience of the French system to be extremely prescient about how things would unfold. He warned that “the debate cannot be and must not come down to a power struggle in view of upcoming electoral contests,” [p. 11] knowing, no doubt, that the debate would do just that. His report specified six “untenable scenarios” for the city’s governance, from doing nothing to adding layers of administrative complexity. Predictably, what has happened in the four years since the report was published has been a nearly perfect mix of these six scenarios, without any sign of the “real rupture” that the report said the region’s governance desperately needed.

When it became time to make a decision, President Sarkozy side-stepped the issue. The law on local governance passed in December 2010, inspired by many of the Balladur Report’s proposals, did not include any measures relating to Paris. It became clear that the governance of the Paris metropolis was a subject that Sarkozy would not touch before the 2012 presidential elections. The Dallier report had stated that “the failure to create an entity for greater Paris would only benefit the temptations to recentralize.” [p. 11] This prophecy was also borne out in the interim by the role played by the Société du Grand Paris, a national government entity. On this as on other issues of Sarkozy’s first term, the professed willingness for bold reform has not been followed by action.

The Debate Today

A new phase has arrived with the approach of the presidential elections, to be held in April and May 2012.

Those in favor of a decisive step forward have coalesced around Philippe Dallier’s proposal of merging the four central départements. Most surprising has been the support of Claude Bartolone, who is not only a Socialist, but also the president of Seine-Saint-Denis, one of the départements that would disappear in Dallier’s proposal. Bartolone sees the creation of a single metropolitan government as the only way to decisively address what he sees as the greatest failure of the current system: the inability to adequately share funds across the richer and poorer parts of the metropolitan region.

Gérard Collomb, Mayor of Lyon

Another Socialist heavyweight has rallied the Dallier scheme. In conjunction with the development of the Socialist presidential program, Gérard Collomb, Mayor of Lyon, has called for a “third act of decentralization.” Collomb’s vision includes the further transfer of power from the national government to the regions and the creation of metropolitan authorities for Lyon, Lille and Marseille. For Paris, his proposals mirror those of the Balladur and Dallier reports.

Some of the most powerful politicians in the Paris region, from the Left and the Right, have taken strong positions against the Dallier scheme. Jean-Paul Huchon, the Socialist President of the Île-de-France region, and Patrick Devedjian, the Conservative President of the Hauts-de-Seine département  – two people who have nothing in common other than facing the prospect of losing personal power if the proposal were implemented – are vigorously opposed to a radical reorganization. They are not, however, proposing anything other than the status quo.

Patrick Braouzec, the former Mayor of Saint-Denis and now leader of the “Plaine-Commune” community of municipalities, seems to  share the perspective that the issue is not the governance structure, but simply that everyone has not yet figured out how to work together: “It is not with a structure representing 6 or 7 million people that we will solve our problems. […] The challenge is not to concentrate power in fewer hands, but to share decisions, to organize solidarity, how we live together… including our way of governing.” [Hors-série Urbanisme, p. 17]

Bertrand Delanoë, Mayor of Paris

In an effort to win back momentum on this issue, Bertrand Delanoë, the Socialist Mayor of Paris, recently made his own proposal. He wants to turn the current vehicle for inter-municipal cooperation, Paris Métropole, into a “metropolitan confederation.” This confederation, a new layer of government composed of representatives from the existing local governments – a sort of United Nations of the Paris metropolitan region – would exist alongside the existing entities, with substantial powers that would somehow not come at the detriment of the local governments. Delanoë also wants to create several authorities with power over the whole metropolis in areas like housing, employment, and the environment.

Delanoë’s proposal is attractive because it would be relatively painless to implement. It does not challenge any existing power bases. It does not require closing anything that currently exists. It could be attained without the need for a politically bold “big bang.”

But it is fundamentally flawed. It would add more layers, more authorities, and more complexity to the governance of Greater Paris. It would transfer significant powers to non-accountable public entities composed of representatives of the existing local governments. It treats the governing of Paris as something to be brokered between the politicians already in place, not as the democratic expression of the will of the citizens. Its main objective seems to be to perpetuate a structure where the City of Paris is assured of playing a predominant role.

In parallel to all this, there are more and more instances of the numerous small municipalities around Paris banding together in groups, as if they had understood that there is more to be gained by increasing their size to be able to counterbalance the power of the City of Paris and the other big fish than from jealously guarding their local autonomy.

On March 3, 2012, François Hollande, the Socialist candidate for President, with a commanding lead in the polls, gave a major speech in Dijon in front of local elected officials from around the country. He called for a “new act in decentralisation,” mirroring the language of Gérard Collomb. But his proposals seemed mostly targeted at addressing the complaints of local elected officials by clarifying and improving the articulation between local governments and the national government. Regarding Paris, he only said: ” I have confidence in the elected officials of the urban region […] to define together the tools of metropolitan solidarity and to invent the structure and the administration that will allow the mobilisation of the elected officials. I will trust in their creativity and their sense of responsibility.” To the extent that it is possible to make very much of that, it sounds like an endorsement of the Delanoë approach. Hollande certainly did not take this opportunity to endorse a radical change in the institutional structure of Greater Paris.


Paris is at a crossroads. Most who have analyzed the situation believe that a metropolitan government is absolutely necessary. The existing hodge-podge of fragmented responsibilities is extremely unlikely to lead Paris to continued relevance on the world stage, other than as a capital of tourism and prestige.

We know from history that any institutional change in the governance of cities is a long and difficult process. Today, the issue is clear, the potential solutions are limited, and the months following the presidential election are a rare political window of opportunity. It will be fascinating to see if Greater Paris is able to organize itself to meet its challenges, if it will give itself a government appropriate to the ambition it needs to have for the future, or if it will continue to wallow in the gridlock of individual interests being put before those of the metropolis.

Related posts:

Le Grand Paris – Part 1: The Launch

Le Grand Paris – Part 2: The International Consultation

Le Grand Paris – Part 3: Moving to Implementation

Le Grand Paris – Part 4: Where Things Stand