France has been one of the most affected countries in Europe by the COVID-19 pandemic, with 162,936 confirmed cases, including 29,778 deaths, and 75,649 patients cured[1]. Several weeks elapsed between the detection of the first cases at the end of January 2020 and the lockdown declared on March 17. It lasted 55 days, until May 11, when the deconfinement was cautiously initiated. In this country known for its centralized decision-making process, territorial governance and the distribution of powers between local and national authorities have been subject to many questions both during the crisis and the implementation of deconfinement measures. The municipal elections’ campaign, of which the second round was postponed to June 28, not only revealed tensions between the different governance levels, but also highlighted aspirations for a paradigm shift following the crisis, at least at locally. In addition to the socio-economic and environmental impacts, the lockdown has indeed questioned our relationship to time and space, especially in urban areas, which are particularly dense in France. What are the perspectives for a change in urban development practices in the wake of the pandemic? How can urban governance be rethought? This article proposes to explore these questions.

I. Understanding the distribution of powers between administrative levels in France

France is a unitary State, both deconcentrated and decentralized. Unitary, in the sense that it is characterized by the existence of a single political power, held at the national level, exercising sovereignty, and whose decisions apply throughout the national territory. Deconcentrated, since the State has representatives at local level (e.g. prefects, mayors). Finally, decentralised, since separate administrative authorities have been set up in territories such as municipalities, departments, regions, etc. As a result, the French governance system is characterized by its administrative complexity and the dilution of competencies between the various levels[2].

Until 1982, the prefect was the State’s representative locally and he held the executive power. The decentralisation of territorial administration, which began in 1982, has transformed this role: the prefect remains the depositary of the State’s authority in the departments, implementing government policies on territorial planning and development. However, the “Act I[3]” of decentralisation has transferred the executive power to the presidents of the regional and departmental councils and transformed the prefect’s supervision of local authorities into a control a posteriori by an administrative jurisdiction. Urban planning and social activities have also been transferred to local authorities. Decentralization policies were strengthened by including the concept itself in the Article 1 of the French Constitution during the “Act II” of Decentralization in 2003.

In 2014, the law aiming at modernizing territorial actions and creating metropoles transferred the competencies in terms of sustainable mobility and air quality to the mayors. It also confirms the metropoles’ new status allowing urban areas of more than 400,000 residents to take the lead on economic development, innovation, energy transition and urban policies[4]. The law initiated the creation of the Greater Paris Area, which will become an autonomous public entity in 2016.

Another administrative level is worth considering while addressing the French governance level, namely the inter-municipality council (intercommunalité). It consists of transferring the management of one or more public services to an inter-municipal structure, which is structured as a public body. It allows municipalities to pool their resources to provide public services or build facilities but represents an implicit competence transfer from the mayor to another supra-municipal entity, resulting in an even more blurry power distribution over territories.

The prefect and the mayor have been the key local figures during the COVID-19 crisis. The former must act to ensure the coherence of the State’s action in territories and thus exercise authority over other local bodies, while the latter, acts both as a State agent (deconcentrated level) and on behalf of the municipal council (decentralized level). As the executive municipal leader, the mayor also has his own powers and is responsible for maintaining public order, especially safety, security and public health[5]. This last prerogative has nevertheless been questioned in the context of the state of health emergency implemented since 23 March 2020.

II. Addressing the COVID-19 crisis

Due to the increase confirmed cases and deaths related to COVID-19, the French government declared the lockdown, initially for 15 days, on March 17. Extended twice, it will finally last 55 days and will be gradually phased out from May 11. The peak of the epidemic seems to have been reached around April 10, and the number of related deaths has been steadily declining since then.

The “emergency law to address the COVID-19 pandemic” of March 23, 2020[6] constitutes the legal arsenal to support governmental action while dealing with the crisis. It creates a new regime, known as a “state of health emergency”, which gives the State strong power over the territory, particularly to prefects, to requisition premises or restrict freedom (freedom of movement, access public places). The law creates a scientific committee, which assists the government in decision-making, but which only gives advisory opinions. Apart from the Health Crisis Center, aimed at coordinating actions between healthcare units, France has not set up any ad hoc units to address the crisis. Rather, it opted for a recentralisation of authority in the hands of the executive branch, embodied by President Emmanuel Macron and Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, and through its local representatives on the department, i.e. the prefect, and at municipal level, i.e. the mayor. Health issues have been managed in coordination with the Ministry of Health, which also has a significant territorial network with the Regional Health Agencies. In the economic field, the law set up a Solidarity Fund to compensate small and medium-sized enterprises. Other economic safeguard measures were initiated such as the postponement of credit maturities or the guarantee of bank loans by the State. Sectoral plans targeting tourism (€18 billion), aeronautics (€7 billion) and the automotive industry (€8 billion) were launched during the lockdown to safeguard employment, complemented with a mechanism of short-time working financed by the government.

The state of health emergency gave the Prime Minister authority to postpone the second round of municipal elections. The fact that the first round of municipal elections, held on March 15, had been maintained despite the risk of virus spreading, had been much controversial since it has been considered as a cause of numerous contaminations. This mistake contributed to create a climate of mistrust towards the government and questioned, at very early stage of the crisis, its ability to anticipate the magnitude of the crisis. The success of opposition parties in most cities during the second round of municipal elections, which eventually took place on June 28 may thus be read as a response both to the government’s shortcomings while addressing the crisis (mask supplies, lack of protection for professional exposed to the virus) and to the misunderstandings linked to the deconfinement and economic recovery strategies.

The date of deconfinement, set for May 11 and announced in mid-April by the President during a televised address, seems to be representative of the decision-making process implemented during the crisis. In fact, this date initiated a process in three phases, the second of which took place on June 2 and the last one, initially scheduled for June 22, was finally brought forward to the 15th of the same month, attesting to the decline in the virus’ spread in the country. The government chose a strategy of territorial deconfinement, which classifies territories as green, orange or red according to the virus’ active circulation within the area and hospital capacities.

This map dates from May 11th and shows a France cut in two: the red zone will be subject to travel restrictions, particularly during rush hours, until June 15. From 2 June, the orange (Ile de France only) and green zones have seen their restaurants and cafés reopen, as well as a large number of schools. From June 15, all social venues were able to reopen.

While this gradual deconfinement contributed to contain the virus’ spread, both the decision-making and the implementation processes were however criticized by mayors and other local elected officials. The choice of the deconfinement date particularly crystallized tensions since it seems that it was taken without consultation between the “top” and “bottom” of the administrative pyramid. During the crisis, local authorities ensured the “last mile” of territorial continuity and were the local focal point responsible for protecting the population. Mayors thus expressed their increasing frustration towards this pyramidal organization and deplored not being associated to decisions they would in fine implement. For instance, the schools reopening raised tensions between local and central authorities, as the schedule was unilaterally decided by the government while the mayors would have to ensure satisfactory sanitary conditions for the students no matter what circumstances they would face at their level. Likewise, mayors no longer have the economic competence in their territory (due to the decentralisation laws) and thus found themselves powerless to help local businesses rebuild their activities after the lockdown. Representatives of the Associations of both Rural Mayors and Small Towns of France expressed their concerns on an unbalanced relationship between local authorities and the central State, whose crisis has highlighted shortcomings in terms of strategy[7] and effectiveness on the field. While the State is – and should be – leading the strategy, more room for manoeuvre could be left to local elected representatives in the implementation process, especially in times of crisis, to ensure an adequate response to local realities. There should be no exception for public health as it is normally the mayor’s responsibility. But the context of health emergency again transfers this competence to the central State, leading to situations such as in the city of Sceaux, near Paris: the mayor wanted to impose the wearing of face mask as compulsory in the city’s public spaces, but his decision was suspended by the Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest administrative body) on the grounds that it conflicted with the consistency of the measures taken at national level. Such a decision questions the real capacity of mayors to act at their level to combat the pandemic.

The management of the COVID-19 crisis thus highlighted the verticality of the French institutional system, which tends to concentrate powers – and expectations – on the executive power and more precisely on the President. This system has worked this way since the entry into force of the Constitution of the Fifth Republic (1958) but does not encourage State agents’ accountability in the territories. Neither does it encourage the executive branch to consult or associate all stakeholders in developing territorial strategies, even though it could ensure that measures are contextualised and adapted to local realities.

III. Focus on Paris

The economic importance of Paris  

Paris is the political and economic capital of France. With a GDP of 649 billion euros, it represents 30% of the wealth produced in France (2014) and its weight in the French economy has tended to increase in recent years. In 2016, Paris was home to 18% of jobs and 16% of the population of the Ile-de-France region, which comprises 8 departments and is also Europe’s leading economic region with around 5% of its GDP. Paris Region’s economy has specific features that are specific to the world’s major metropoles. The economy is for instance essentially tertiary with 87% of the added value produced in Ile-de-France. The tertiary sector’s weight is 10 points higher than the average for other French regions (75%), notably due to the strong presence of large companies’ head offices and the importance of financial and business services. Conversely, industry is much less present in Ile-de-France than in the rest of the country[8].

The tourism sector is also one of the key economic drivers of the city and the region, which received 38 million tourists in 2019[9]. Tourism employs 388,929 people in the Greater Paris area, i.e. 11.7% of the total paid employment. In Paris alone, the revenue from the tourist tax generated 103 million euros and the hotel sector’s turnover 45 billion euros in 2019. The City of Paris has also changed its urban policies to offer a better experience to tourists: pedestrianisation of the riverside streets, regeneration of Les Halles district and a general improvement of the commercial offer. The local economy has therefore been particularly affected by the epidemic, which has led to a sudden stop in tourism. Initial analyses estimate a loss of 40 billion euros for the tourism industry in France, out of an annual total of 170 billion euros for the sector. Precise data are not yet available for Paris, but the leading French tourist region will be the most heavily impacted[10].

The epicentre of the pandemic in France

The Ile-de-France region was also the most affected by COVID-19, with 7,425 deaths related to the epidemic[11]. The mortality rate thus increased by 90% in the region between 1 March and 30 April 2020, compared to the same period in 2019[12], and unevenly affected the departments that form the region. The department of Seine Saint-Denis, one of the poorest areas of the country, paid the heaviest price, with a 123.4% increase in mortality rate compared to the previous year. Over-mortality is also marked in the other dense departments of the Greater Paris metropolitan area (+112.6% in Hauts-de-Seine, +95% in Val-de-Marne). The graph below summarises the figures given while comparing them to the rest of France[13].

When the lockdown was announced, about 17% of the Ile-de-France’ inhabitants left the territory to settle in other regions, i.e. approximately 1 million people. This trend has largely highlighted the social and territorial inequalities between Ile-de-France residents, particularly in terms of access to a second home and to outdoor space, but also the possibility of remote work. It also created tensions in host territories, due to the risk of the virus spreading to less exposed areas. The sudden increase in local populations also presented risks in terms of food supply capacities as well as local hospital abilities to accommodate a potential increase of COVID-19 cases.

As the epicentre of the pandemic, Paris experienced both a more stringent lockdown and a slower deconfinement process than the rest of the country. At the beginning of April, the City Council and the Prefecture of Paris announced a tightening of daily outings possibilities by banning sports practices between 10 am and 7 pm. When the deconfinement began, the Ile-de-France region remained classified as a risk zone (red zone), limiting residents’ movements in public places and restaurants, cafés and parks remained closed to the public. The latter provision led to an open conflict between the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, and the government, the former requesting the opening of parks to offer more outdoor spaces to Parisians and thus avoiding crowds in streets or on the river banks. The government did not allow the reopening of these spaces until June 2, at the same time as terraces of restaurants and cafés. To support this reopening, the City Council exempted businesses from paying terrace fees until September 2020 and allowed them to be enlarged by using parking spaces.

These measures are part of the adjustments made by the City to revitalise the local economy. In total, the municipality has exempted Parisian businesses from rent and other charges for an amount of 155 million euros, an equivalent income loss for the city. Direct measures to support the local economy are estimated at 60 million euros from the city budget, including 5 million euros dedicated to financing positive-impact tourism. This concept, which results from a collaboration between the Paris City Council and the Terra Nova think tank[14], encourages fighting against the negative effects of “over-tourism”, by favouring for eco-tourism, diversifying the commercial offer and contributing to decreasing the pressure on the City’s real estate sector by accommodation platforms. Numerous social measures have also been deployed in favour of the most disadvantaged, with a global aid of 3.6 million euros financed by the City for households benefiting from solidarity pricing for children catering during the school year, i.e. 29 000 families.

Reinventing Paris in post Covid-19 crisis context?

Encouraging Parisians to reappropriate public space has been of the City Council’s top priorities in the wake of the crisis. 50 km of bike lanes have thus been created in the city to offer an alternative to public transport, which were reserved for travellers with a specific certificate during peak hours. The Region also joined this initiative to provide a total of 150 km of temporary bike lanes throughout the Ile-de-France region. Other temporary facilities have been encouraged by municipal authorities around schools, to pedestrianize streets or to extend sidewalks. This tactical urbanism approach, so far very rarely used in France, has been presented as an opportunity to transform the city into an open-air laboratory for new urban practices. It also aims at continuing reducing the use of cars in the city, one of the main concerns of the Mayor of Paris during her term of office. A strategy that proved to pay off among Parisians, since the list led by Anne Hidalgo won the second round of the municipal elections on June 28. The challenge is now to ensure the durability of these “temporary” measures: Once re-elected, the mayor announced her will to keep these 50 km of new lanes, but this decision must be validated by the Conseil d’Etat. Another important measure that should be implemented during the summer 2020 is the pedestrianisation of the Canal St. Martin, one of the green lungs of Paris.

In addition to mobility, two other policies aiming at transforming Paris’ urban model can be considered. The first one is to strengthen the proximity of healthcare facilities and services (known as the 15-minute city) by decentralizing the management of public health and safety activities as well as the coordination of health services from the City Council to district councils. The municipality also wants to implement France’s first Local Bioclimatic Urban Plan[15], which will require bioclimatic design for all new buildings and which will favour projects capable of both maintaining the existing biodiversity within districts and encouraging its development. Combining public health with an eco-urban vision demonstrates the importance of proposing a systemic response to the prevention of pandemics and to the environmental and climate crisis. Putting residents back at the centre of the urban project, preventing daily nuisances and pollution as well as preserving fauna and flora will contribute to building a global and sustainable response in urban areas such as Paris.

IV. Towards new urban compromises?

Responses to the pandemic call for a rethinking of urban spaces’ uses, both in terms of time and space, regarding their modularity and reversibility both in the short (day, week) or in the long term. The city life is the product of a temporal system resulting from the combination of social activities with multiple, sometimes contradictory temporalities. Time management is one of the daily priorities of urban residents, to respond to multiple personal and professional constraints. However, managing time to have an impact on the occupation of space is not common[16]. In this sense, Luc Gwiazdzinski suggests imagining temporary and temporal urban planning approaches, which are defined as “the set of plans, timetables and actions on space and time, which allow the organisation of the city’s technical, social and aesthetic functions for more human, accessible and hospitable metropoles[17]“. In this sense, he proposes the concept of the malleable city, “a sustainable city that can be shaped without breaking apart”[18].

Malleability could be included at different levels of the urban project. First, during its conception, by considering the reversibility of uses at the planning stage, ensuring the possibility of future redesigns of spaces.  Then, during its implementation, by creating flexible spaces, adapting them to users’ needs. And finally, during the infrastructure’s lifecycle, by ensuring its multifunctional nature[19]. Giving the possibility of adapting and scaling up spaces implies a strong dimension of co-construction of the urban project with all the stakeholders on the territory. It also proposes to evolve from the notion of public spaces to collective spaces, which include all the places open to users[20].

Such an approach presupposes rethinking spatial governance models by encouraging more horizontality in the decision-making process, with a more important place given to residents and actors of the urban life in general. It also implies accepting a dimension of learning and experimenting while developing the urban project, and thus a margin of error and the possibility of going backwards. This vision, which contrasts with the French model of territorial administration, is nevertheless already applied in some territories, in Loos-en-Gohelle for instance, which is a former mining town in northern France, where the mayor has been experimenting co-decision processes with the inhabitants for the past twenty years. Thanks to this strategy, the town, which was devastated by the collapse of the mining industry, has been transformed into a pilot area for ecological transition[21]. From this experience is born La Fabrique des Transitions[22] (the Transition Factory), an association aiming at supporting systemic transformations at larger scale, through the sharing of good practices between territories learning about ecological transition. It also encourages the creation of common resources to initiate the ecological transition, bringing together tools, methodologies and feedback from local experiences.

This dimension refers to the notion of “urban commons” which consist of all initiatives aimed at proposing new forms of resource management within the collective space or innovative governance models. They usually emerge in environments where resources are under pressure: high land and property prices, competition of uses, density of inhabitants and users, etc. They can therefore provide a local response to several urban problems experienced in metropoles, such as access to land and real estate, promote joint management of resources to be preserved and strengthen social ties[23]. The initiatives aim at offering solutions to the lack of urban services provided by local authorities and are therefore complementary to, not in competition with, existing infrastructure and services. Strengthening them can act towards a sustainable transformation of urban planning models by rethinking interactions between metropoles and their hinterland, but also those at the different decision-making levels in the field of planning, taking more broadly into account local needs and uses. Renewing our spatial organisation models is a major challenge to limit our consumption of space and resources while maintaining social links in urban areas and enabling them to cope with climatic and health challenges.






[5] As defined in the Code Général des Collectivités Territoriales










[15] Ibid.

[16] Métropole malléable et adaptable : vers un urbanisme temporaire et temporel, Luc Gwiazdzinski, STREAM, Ticket n°3, p.pp.51-63 (2014)

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.



[23] Les communs urbains, une notion pour repenser l’aménagement territorial ?, Cécile Diguet, Note Rapide de l’Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme, Juillet 2019

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