Decentralization of the French welfare state: from ‘big bang’ to ‘muddling through’

Date01 June 2016
Published date01 June 2016
International Review of
Administrative Sciences
2016, Vol. 82(2) 255–272
!The Author(s) 2015
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/0020852315583774
Review of
Decentralization of the French
welfare state: from ‘big bang’ to
‘muddling through’
Renate Reiter
FernUniversity, Germany
Sabine Kuhlmann
University of Potdam, Germany
This article analyses the decentralization of the French welfare state focusing on the
transfer of the Revenu minimum d’insertion (RMI) welfare benefit to the departments in
2003 and 2004. We map and explain the effects of the reform on the system and
performance of the subnational provision of welfare tasks. To evaluate the impact of
decentralization on the RMI-related action of the departments, we carry out a qualita-
tive document analysis and use data from two case studies. The RMI decentralization
offers an exemplary insight into the incremental implementation of French decentraliza-
tion. We find many unintended effects in terms of the performance and outcome of the
subnational welfare provision. This is traced back to the combining of institutional and
policy reforms and the inadequate translation of high political expectations into an
inadequate action programme both resulting in excessive demands on the local actors.
Points for practitioners
The decentralization of public tasks is associated with high expectations in terms of the
effects on the performance of public services and public governance on the subnational
levels. For an in-depth measure the range of administrative performance and political
systems effects should be taken into account. We propose a five-dimensional scheme
allowing for the determination of decentralization effects on the resource input to and
the operative output of subnational public services, on the horizontal coordination
between subnational task holders and the affected non-public stakeholders, on the
vertical intergovernmental coordination, and on the democratic accountability of
subnational authorities.
Corresponding author:
Renate Reiter, FernUniversita
¨t in Hagen, Fakulta
¨tfu¨r Kultur- und Sozialwissenschaften, Institut fu¨r
Politikwissenschaft, Politikwissenschaft III: Politikfeldanalyse und Umweltpolitik, Universita
¨tsstraße 33/C,
58084 Hagen, Germany.
decentralization, France, incremental reform, welfare state
France represents a distinctive case of the trans-level restructuring of public tasks
through decentralization. Compared to other European countries (e.g. the United
Kingdom), French decentralization never featured a pragmatic strategy of devol-
vement ‘on demand’ (McEwen and Parry, 2005: 41). Instead, from its inception in
the early 1980s, it stood out because of the fact that policy-makers attempted to
‘square the circle’. The Republican idea of the central state as the unique guarantor
of ‘equal opportunities’ to all citizens was meant to be combined with the strategy
of granting subnational authorities
more power and competencies in order to
generate efficiency gains and bring public administration closer to the citizens
(Cole, 2005: 85–86). In the following we critically examine the French decentraliza-
tion reform which has so far been implemented in two waves or ‘acts’ (‘Acte I’,
1982–86; ‘Acte II’, 2003–04). In this, we turn our attention to the welfare state with
its social benefit (aide sociale) and social service (action sociale) functions as this
represented the emphasis of the reform from the outset (Borgetto, 2010a: 7).
A particularly important process within the scope of the more recent ‘Acte II’
was the transfer of competencies for the minimum income scheme Revenu minimum
d’insertion (RMI) from the state to the departments in December 2003. Strictly
speaking, the RMI is welfare aid for 25- to 65-year-old people able to work. The
‘departmentalization’ of this aid represents an exemplary case of the overall decen-
tralization of the French welfare state. This reform used to be conceptualized as a
‘big bang’ by the changing central governments since the beginning of the 1980s. It
was designed as a double approach to coupling institutional change (decentraliza-
tion) with policy change. As a result, the decentralization as an institutional reform
policy was accompanied by many unintended effects. The institutional complexity
increased and the resolution of conflicts between the actors on the central and
subnational levels of government became more difficult, more time consuming
and less transparent. Asked by the former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, to
deliver a report on decentralization, the former Prime minister and local politician,
´douard Balladur pointed to the double (unintended) impact of this institutional
policy. First, with the complete transfer of tasks to the subnational authorities
(‘political decentralization’), the anticipated structural effects could not be
achieved. Second, a number of politically envisaged policy objectives were
missed, which, again, produced negative and unintended consequences:
... the organization of the subnational units became even more complex over time.
The latest steps towards the decentralization ...of policies were not accompanied by
efforts towards a rationalization of the structures, competencies, and financing of
tasks discharged by the territorial authorities. As a result, public action loses its
256 International Review of Administrative Sciences 82(2)

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