Flood Risk Management Strategies in France’s recent past: a story of scale and powers.

By Corinne Larrue, Mathilde Gralepois and Jean-Baptiste Trémorin

Corinne Larrue

Compared to other European countries, France has a pyramidal organization due to centuries of centralization in the repartition of powers. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the process of “decentralization” has devolved competences to the three levels of local authorities (Région, Département and Communes). The central Government kept mostly what is commonly called its “kingly powers”, such as Health care, Justice or National Security, including risk management. The decentralization movement has transferred many responsibilities to the 36,000 communes such as economic development, environmental policies, network utilities and urban planning. This separation of competences raised important challenges and dilemmas for local authorities. To what extent could the communes address flood risk management and urban planning policies in a synchronous and integrated fashion? Today, the absence of concrete cooperation between the Central Government and the Local Authorities is still causing confusion. How come that some new links between these different levels of powers have not been implemented or even been put on the public agenda as a priority? This question reveals a lot of the subtle relationships existing between the Central government and the local powers, a balance of conflict and cooperation.

In 1995, the French policy makers renewed their flood policy with a new legal document called PPRI, Plan de Prévention des Risques Mathilde Gralepois smalld’Inondations or flood risk prevention plan. Following a number of dramatic events in the south of France, the government wanted to reduce urbanization in floodplains involving areas susceptible to flood risk. The planning competences of the local authorities were restricted accordingly and PPRI was interpreted as a way for the Central Government to maintain control upon local authorities and spatial planning decision making process. For some communes, those new unbuildable areas represented a break point for their urban expansion programmes, even more when these communes had little free-space left and experienced a strong real-estate pressure. Their only way to continue building, and ensure economic development, was to tackle the issue of flood risk upon their territory. The flood issue became also a way for the local powers to show their disapproval of the central government’s trespassing on their own competence. In some cases, a true power struggle opposed the local to the national authorities.

As far as these divergent interests were operating, it proved difficult to find common ground. The appropriation process of Flood Risk Management Strategies (FRMSs) by local authorities was related to setting up their own territorial engineering. While the Central government was at first the only credible stakeholder of FRMSs, the communes started forming proper flood risk expertise departments within their administration. As they built up more and more credibility, they also managed to undermine the State expertise and open up more space for debate, especially on flood simulation and mapping.

Moreover, the approaches being implemented took different paths. Whereas the Central authority dealt with flood risk in a quite traditional defensive and preventive approach, such as dikes or flood barriers, the Communes were adopting a new and fairly underused strategy by implementing flood mitigation and vulnerability reduction.

JB small3This was the repartition of powers’ inherent complexity in France in a nutshell, which showed a widening in the approaches to flood risk management strategies. Local authorities are increasingly able to make FRMSs take root on a local dimension as some work is done on flood prevention strategies by involving the general public. In our opinion, one of the main challenges of the STARFLOOD project is to embrace a proper understanding of this complex environment and come up with a more integrated vision of the implementation of FRMSs. The question of Flood Risk Governance Arrangements (FRGA) is even more relevant right now, as another step in the decentralization process is being studied by François Hollande’s French Government. And it should tackle a new repartition of the flood risk related competences.