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In 1955, President of the Council (that is Prime Minister, according to the Constitution of the Fourth Republic) launched five-year "programs of regional action" (programmes d'action régionale). The State Planning Commission (Commissariat Général au Plan) created 19 "program regions" (régions de programme), each ran by a project leader (chargé de mission). Order of 28 November 1956 increased the number of the regions to 22. The goals and competencies of the regions had nothing to do with the current regional competencies prescribed by the decentralization laws voted in 1982. The regions were nothing but a tool of administrative planning. The project leaders had nearly no power since they should respect the "neutrality of the state".
Serge Antoine, aged 28, graduated with ENA (École Nationale d'Administration), the prestigious college training senior civil servants. As one the idle project leaders, he was commissionned to define the limits of the regions. He recalls that the limits of the early 22 regions had been designed without great care (sur le coin d'une cheminée, on the corner of a fireplace). Antoine firstly checked the regional divisions used by the Ministeries and listed some 80 different systems. He then selected the main division systems and superposed them, using colour tracing papers and his ambidextrous wife as a skillfull assistant. Some regions appeared quite evidently, such as Bretagne, Alsace and Auvergne. Other places caused problems: the department of Indre, in the center of France, showed up in 12 different regional configurations
In order to solve the problems, Antoine used data from the telpehone exchanges, incorporating the problematic departments to the regions they phoned the most to. For instance, the department of Gard was incorporated to Languedoc rather to Provence because the inhabitants of its préfecture, Nîmes, phoned more often to Montpellier than to Marseilles.
Antoine's system respected three rules: no department was split between two regions; no region had less than a million inhabitants; the region of Paris was geographically restricted, therefore the creation of the "buffer" regions of Centre and Picardie.
The resulting map matched the 1956 fireplace's corner map, with a few differences. Region Midi-Pyrénées lost the department of Pyrénées-Orientales, transferred to Languedoc (later renamed Languedoc-Roussillon), and the department of Basses-Pyrénées (later renamed Pyrénées-Atlantiques), was transferred to Aquitaine. The two regions of Rhône and Alpes were merged into region Rhône-Alpes.
In 1958, Michel Debré, first Prime Minister of the young Fifth Republic, withdrew his project of dividing France into 47 departments. Two Decrees (7 January 1959 and 2 June 1960), drafted by Serge Antoine, prescribed the regions and harmonized most of the regional divisions used by the Ministeries. The divisions were called Circonscriptions d'Action Régionale.
The region map remained unchanged until 1972, when Corsica was separated from the region Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur-Corse. In 2004, Serge Antoine, then aged 76, was then asked what he would change if he had to do it again. He would merge Basse-Normandie and Haute-Normandie into a single region Normandie; Alsace, Lorraine and Champagne-Ardenne; Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur and Languedoc-Roussillon. Antoine added he had expected the system to progressively evolve to bigger regions by mergings, which did not happen.
Source: Interview of Serge Antoine by Michel Feltin, L'Express, 23 March 2004
There are indeed more or less serious initiatives to change the limits of certain regions. The most serious claim is the "reunification" of historical Brittany, asking the incorporation of the department of Loire-Atlantique, whose préfecture Nantes was the capital of the Duchy of Brittany, to Brittany. The claim is organized by a movement called Comité pour l'Unification Administrative de la Bretagne (CUAB) and often expressed by the use of Breton flags or flags based on the Breton traditional flags - with a black cross - by cultural associations, sports fan clubs etc. in Loire-Atlantique. Those flags also often use five elements (for instance five ermine spots) to recall the claim of incorporating Loire-Atlantique as the fifth department of Brittany. There are from time to time big street demonstrations in Nantes asking for the "reunification".
In Normandy, some movements, including Mouvement Normand, ask for the reunification of region Normandie, but this claim has much less popular support than the Breton claim.
In Savoy, the movement La Région Savoie, j'y crois (I believe in Region Savoy) was founded in 1999 by local politicians and is asking for the formation of a region Savoy separated from the region Rhône-Alpes. The movement has very little popular support, much less than the separatist Ligue Savoisienne.
Changing the name of a region is also complicated, because it requires the agreement of all departments in the region and of all other regions and departments.
The change of the name of region Centre to region Centre-Val-de-Loire was rejected by the department of Loire-Atlantique. Recently, the former Mayor of Montpellier and President of region Languedoc-Roussillon, Georges Frêche, attempted to change the name of region Languedoc-Roussillon for Septimanie, recalling the Frankish region of Septimania, named after seven (sept) towns. The proposal caused a big turmoil and was widely rejected.
Ivan Sache, 31 December 2005
The regions were granted a very limited autonomy by Law of 5 July 1972, which created the Regional Councils. Significant decentralization occurred in France only in 1982, with Law of 2 March 1982 relative aux droits et libertés des communes, des départements et des régions, which prescribed the transfer of several competencies and resources from the State to the region. The reform was completed by Law of 6 January 1986, which prescribed the election of the Regional Councils by universal, direct suffrage.
The regions had no flags before the decentralization reform of 1982. They can now have a flag, adopted by the Regional Council, and therefore open to change when the political leadership of the Regional Council change. The distinction between the flag of the region (as an entity) and the flag of the Regional Council (as an assembly) is not very clear, except when there is a specific writing on the flag. The use of these flags differs from region to region.
Ivan Sache, 31 December 2005
(Information on the flag is available for the Regions marked with an asterisk.)