Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER XXIII: local government - Modern Democracies, vol. 1.
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CHAPTER XXIII: local government - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 1. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 1
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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It has already been pointed out that pre-Revolutionary France had no system of local institutions similar to those of England and the United States. Certain ancient rights of jurisdiction belonged to the noblesse; and local judiciaries existed in the Parlements of some of the greater provinces, but administration, civil and financial, had passed into the hands of the officers of the Crown. When the welter of the Revolution ended in 1799, Napoleon, in reconstructing the administrative system of Louis XIV., so strengthened it as to make the hand of the Central Government felt in every part of the country. There was no thought of creating local institutions, still less of putting them upon a popular basis. France was cut up into Departments, on lines which in some cases ignored the old provinces.1 The departments were artificial divisions, with no corporate tradition, such as still belong to English counties, and awakening no local patriotism. Only one relic of antiquity remained in the rural Commune, a civil as well as an ecclesiastical unit, which, now that the severance of the Catholic Church from the State has extinguished its religious character, remains as the basis of civil organization. To it we shall return presently, when the larger unit of the Department has been described.
Democratic principles require some sort of self-government, so in each Department there has been created an elected council, the Conseil Général, chosen by universal suffrage, each canton returning one member who sits for six years, one-half of the whole Council being changed every three years. There are two sessions in each year, one lasting for a month, the other a fortnight. If an extra session is called, the sittings must not exceed a week. Its taxing powers are strictly limited, and it can be dissolved by the Government, should it incur their displeasure. Its chief functions are the care of the departmental roads, a class of highways intermediate between the national roads and the so-called “neighbourhood roads” (chemins vicinaiux), as well as of the schools and asylums, and it can give subventions to railways. The narrowness of its sphere is due to the wide powers exercised by the Prefect as the agent of the Central Government. Not only does he appoint the departmental officials and manage the public institutions, dealing with many matters left in England or the United States to locally elected authorities, but his is the executive hand by which the decisions of the Council have to be carried out, and his power over the Council itself is considerable. It cannot take action without having received his report on the matter proposed to be dealt with. Its decisions on certain subjects can be annulled by the Central Government, whose approval is required for its tax levies, and for their appropriations to particular objects. Notwithstanding these limitations, there is considerable competition for seats on the Council, partly because they open a path to public life. The elections are fought upon the lines of national party, and thereby embittered.1 Local would-be leaders find a field for making themselves known, and do so the more easily because the substantial citizens show little interest in the conduct of Departmental business. A statute of 1884 withdrew from the Councils, as liable to partisanship, a part of the control they had possessed over the affairs of the communes.
The Arrondissement, which is the next largest local circumscription, and was till 1919 the electoral area for the election of a deputy to the Chambers, also possesses a Council (members elected for six years), but of slight importance, since it has neither revenues nor expenses of its own. So, too, the canton, a still smaller division for judicial and military purposes, need not concern us.
Thus we arrive at the Commune, a local entity which is over nearly the whole of Central and Western Europe the basis of rural life, bearing in Germany and German-speaking Switzerland the name of Gemeinde. It corresponds to the Town or Township of the Northern and Western States of America. In England it was represented by the Parish, but after the middle of the seventeenth century that area had little significance for non-ecclesiastical purposes, until a statute of 1894 created Parish Councils with some civil functions. English and American readers must, however, beware of thinking of a French Commune as if it were what they understand either by a Parish or by a Township. The Commune is just as much urban as rural. It is a municipality capable of holding property as a corporation, and may be as large as Paris or as small as an Alpine hamlet. It has a Communal Council, varying in size from ten to thirty-six members, unpaid, elected for four years by universal suffrage, and themselves electing their Maire,1 who, besides being the chairman, has administrative functions both as the agent of the Central Government, carrying out the directions of the Prefect, and as the executive in matters falling within the sphere of the Communal Council. In some of these matters the Prefect can interfere to annul the acts of Maire or Council; and he may suspend either, or both, from office for a month, while the Central Government can remove him and dissolve the Council altogether. Subject to this control the Council has a general management of local affairs, though official approval is required for the sale of communal property and nearly all other financial business.2
The Commune, or as we should say, Municipality, of Paris is specially regulated. It has a Council of eighty members, but the executive authority belongs partly to the Maires of its twenty arrondissements, who are appointed by the Central Government, partly to two high officials, the Prefect of the Seine and the Prefect of Police. Paris has been too formidable a factor in the political life of Prance to be left to wander at its own sweet will.
The Councils both of the Departments and of the large urban Communes differ greatly in composition and in competence. In villages the Maire is said to be often imperfectly educated and obliged to lean on the schoolmaster. It is alleged that in some large cities, especially where the Socialists have captured the council, local demagogues have found their way into the councils by profuse promises of benefits to the poorer citizens, that rash experiments have been tried, the legal limits of taxation exceeded, heavy debts contracted, patronage misused in the interests of personal friends and parties, improper advantages, such as free tickets for theatres, given to the councillors. If such abuses have been tolerated by the Prefect or the Minister of the Interior, this is ascribed to political motives, because the Administration may hesitate to quarrel with its friends. About the load of debts which presses many of the large municipalities — debts often contracted with little foresight, and sometimes from electioneering motives — there is no doubt, but the other evils just mentioned do not seem to have spread widely. Serious scandals are rare, and have nowhere reached the dimensions of those, now less frequent than formerly, which have disgraced many North American cities. Honest city government has not been one of the great political problems of France. There is probably some want of skill and of judgment, and a readiness to outstep the limits of the law in pursuing what are believed to be the interest of the masses, but peculation is seldom charged. Both French and German critics of democracy are so trenchant in their censure of the Parliamentary Republic that one cannot but suppose that where there is hardly any smoke there can be little fire.
The reader may ask why in a country democratic in spirit and logical in pushing its principles to their conclusions so little has been done for local self-government. The sovereignty of the people is the corner-stone of the Republic. Why trust a nation of forty millions to deal with questions vital to national existence, and refuse to trust the inhabitants of departments or communes with the management of their local affairs, affairs in which a little mismanagement will not greatly matter?
The first answer is that the permanent Civil Service, a bureaucracy holding power and liking power, doing their work well and believing that the people would not do it nearly so well, resist schemes of decentralization.
The second answer is that ministers and deputies cling to the patronage by which the latter keep their hold on their constituents and the former can win the support of deputies.
The third answer is that all who have ruled France since the Directory which Napoleon overthrew in 1799 have had to fear an insurrection which might change the form of government, whether that form was a Monarchy or a Republic. “Self-preservation is the first law of life. Whatever happens, the Monarchy, or the Empire, or the Republic (as the case may be) must be preserved. All the means needed for that supreme end must be used. The control of the whole administration of the country from the centre is such a means. We have it, we need it, we will keep it. It gives us the police as well as the army. It enables us to fill the local posts with our friends, safe men who will serve us at a pinch. It prevents local bodies which might be at a given moment disaffected, from becoming local centres of open resistance or secret conspiracy. If such bodies commanded large funds, or controlled the police, or were in any way strong and conspicuous enough to influence the masses of the people, they might be a danger. We must not give them the opportunity.”
Furthermore, the people of France have not asked for a larger measure of local self-government. They have no such dislike to being governed as used to exist, and to some extent exists still, in England and America; and they care much more for being governed well than for governing themselves. Political philosophers and practical political reformers, from Tocqueville eighty years ago to Taine in our own time, have held up to them the example of the United States as fit to be imitated. Novelists have told them that centralization has injured local social life as well as political life all over France.1 They have listened unmoved, making no such demand as stirs a ministry to action. No political party could by carrying a full-blown scheme of self-government gain enough credit to compensate for the difficulties of the enterprise, and for the troubles that might be expected before the people had learnt to use self-government wisely. There are those who tell the observer privately, though few would proclaim it, that little could be gained by entrusting wide functions to communities most of which have not been fitted by history, and are not fitted by existing social conditions, to use those functions wisely, for the direction of affairs would be likely to fall into the hands of plausible demagogues or wily schemers, the motive forces would be self-interest tempered by fanaticism, predatory in some places, religious or anti-religious in others. Local self-government ought not to be given till the people have learnt to use it. Yet how will they learn to use it except by trying? This is the old problem which has always divided thinkers as well as politicians. Swimming can be learnt only by going into the water, but if you go in before you can swim you may be drowned. Those who know the history of Switzerland, America, and England do not deny the risk, but think it well worth taking.
There has recently arisen a movement called Regionalism, aiming at the division of France into a number of large administrative governmental areas to be formed by grouping departments on geographical lines in accordance with their respective economic interests and historical traditions, and proposing to confer upon each such area a measure of local autonomy sufficient to relieve the Central Government of many functions.1 Considerations already referred to may seem to recommend such a project, especially if accompanied by a scheme enlarging the scope of self-government in the existing minor local divisions such as the Arrondissement. But the idea had not in 1920 so far won popular support as to make it probable that the legislature would give practical effect to it at a time when other grave questions were occupying the public mind.
Often, however, as in Normandy, Brittany, Gascony, Provence, a group of departments corresponds pretty closely with the ancient Province.
The fact that the Councils have a part in choosing the Senate has contributed to bring national politics into local elections. A like result followed in the United States from vesting the choice of the senators in those State Legislatures from which it has been now withdrawn.
I use the French name, because the word Mayor is to English and American readers indissolubly associated with a city or borough.
Some of the smaller and poorer communes occasionally receive subventions from the public treasury.
See, for example, a striking passage in Octave Feuillet's story, M. de Camors, published as far back as the Second Empire.
Seventeen such local divisions, each containing from 3 to 10 departments, have been suggested.