Macron aims to put the heart back into French towns

As in the UK, France’s capital and surrounding areas have enjoyed a disproportionate share of the country’s wealth, accounting for just over 30 per cent of the nation’s gross domestic product and 18.2 per cent of its population.

And as in the UK, the politicians are always talking about regional development and spreading the wealth, with patchy results. While Paris – the City of Lights – has shone, many smaller regions have been left behind, with the trend exacerbated by the economic crisis. Once bustling high streets, with local boulangeries and boucheries, have been hollowed out as big box stores on the outskirts have provided a cheaper and more convenient option for hurried workers.

France though now plans to spend €5 billion over five years to revitalise smaller regional towns. It is becoming a must from a nice-to-have: regional youth unemployment rates have risen, perpetuating a vicious cycle of migration to Paris in search of better prospects. The capital now accounts for 23 per cent of the country’s employment, with an even greater proportion of that in the new economy, accounting for 40 per cent of the country’s R&D research force.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s programme – known as Action Coeur de Ville – has identified 222 towns across the country from Argentan in Normandy through to Besancon in Bourgogne and Grasse in the southern region of Provence.

These towns will benefit from aid to rehabilitate dilapidated centres and support for local businesses to help them migrate services online. The project aims to improve transport links and social services, as well as to renovate housing and introduce energy-saving measures.

“I believe that these small and medium towns are the best tool to recover the dynamism of our regions,” says Jacques Mezard, the minister of territorial cohesion. “The heart of the town is the melting pot where civic, social and economic life meets and bonds.”

France, under previous administrations, has already had some success in urban regeneration projects for its larger regional cities. Lyon is a case in point. Famed the world over for its gastronomy, it is also now a thriving metropolitan centre thanks largely to Confluence, the largest urban regeneration project in Europe.

A total of 150 hectares of old industrial land has been redeveloped since 2003, with developers in the project required to win design competitions to be involved. It has become a model for smart positive buildings, which produce more energy than they consume.

The city retains a heavy industrial base, but has also attracted firms focused on robotics, life sciences and clean tech.

Action Coeur de Ville aims to delve even deeper into the fabric of urban life in France. A cynic might point to the political imperatives at work. residents of Lyon voted 84 per cent in favor of Macron at the last election, and he enjoyed similar levels of support in other major urban centres such as Paris and Bordeaux. However, his popularity soon ebbs in favor of the populist policies of far right leader Marine Le Pen once you venture into small-town France.

Le Pen won strongest support in areas with high jobless rates and low wages where she campaigned to stop immigration and renegotiate France’s relationship with the European Union.

The two departments where she won, Pas de Calais and Aisne, had unemployment rates of 12.2 per cent and 13.8 per cent respectively in the last quarter of 2016 – well above the national rate of 10 per cent.

So far, so comprehensible. But elected officials from more than 100 French municipalities meeting recently in the town of Vierzon warned the problems facing their towns would not be easy to solve. Some expressed concern that the funds promised under the action plan would be tied up in bureaucratic red tape.

Still, other governments in the European Union would do well to follow President Macron’s lead with a well-funded and forward-thinking strategy to spread the wealth beyond their capitals. It should be a vital tool in the effort to stem the tide of populism sweeping the continent.