3 mins

Taking action to spur growth in French rural areas: the rural agenda

Marie-Lorraine Dangeard

The Territorial Agenda 2030 provides an overall framework for territorial cohesion and a future for all places and people; it encourages all stakeholders to take action for a more Just and Greener Europe by addressing social, environmental and economic disparities inherent to a global economy, rendered even more acute by the COVID-19 crisis.

This article seeks to share an ongoing experience to step up the pace of measures taken to spur growth and innovation in more vulnerable rural areas of France by breaking down silos and diversifying approaches in order to maximise opportunities and bridge spatial inequality gaps.

"One of the strong points of the rural agenda lies in its governance: a political signal was sent out by the appointment of a dedicated Secretary of State in charge of overseeing the agenda's implementation"

While living in the countryside is widely regarded as likely to improve one's quality of life, remnant bottlenecks entailing unequal access to core services prevent many rural areas from making the most of their assets; during the COVID-19 crisis, these handicaps were felt particularly hard.

The prevalent mode of intervention for supporting territorial cohesion is through medium-term contracts agreed between state and subnational authorities at different levels, complementary to each other; rural contracts are part of these agreements. They seek to ensure convergence and consistency of funding by coordinating the technical, financial and human means for supporting, in a place-sensitive manner, integrated territorial projects around a set of core provisions.

In the context of the yellow vests movement and the subsequent great national debate in the first months of 2019, a number of rural stakeholders felt that the pace of contract deployment was not fast enough to bridge current inequality gaps in their areas. They advocated that a French version of the European rural agendabe adopted. The authorities decided to take action along those lines: at the joint request of the ministers of territorial cohesion and of agriculture, a team of elected representatives was invited to develop the content of this agenda through a broad consultative process.

One of the strong points of the rural agenda lies in its governance: a political signal was sent out by the appointment of a dedicated Secretary of State in charge of overseeing the agenda's implementation. Strict monitoring methods were set up, such as a special interministerial committee taking stock of progress twice a year, and referrals in all ministries and at departmental level, with a responsibility to ensure that sector-based policies take rural areas into account. Through departmental roadmaps, referrals also provide feedback on the targeted support required to facilitate access to core services n view of specific territorial challenges.

The 181 measures of the rural agenda are structured around five axes aiming at breaking down silos and making rural areas drivers of change. They are diversified in terms of both methods and policy scope. These measures tend to be extremely concrete (e.g. improving broadband coverage, transport provisions, access to public services with the "Maisons de services au public" and facilitating the reopening of small retail businesses).

"one third of the French population lives in rural areas, and over the past two decades the population has been increasing more rapidly in rural than in urban municipalities"

Some reforms have already produced tangible results: for instance, a change in the statistical definition of rural areas led to increasing the rural population from 22 % to 33 %, entailing a change in the perception of their economic weight. The successful uptake of experimental trials aiming at strengthening local expertise or networking practices also points towards changes in the way stakeholders envision life and work in rural areas tomorrow.

What next 'Since its adoption in September 2019, the rural agenda has gained political clout : 60 % of its initial measures have been completed after 18 months. The agenda has delivered results in accelerating broadband deployment and reinforcing policy mainstreaming, but more progress is needed in other areas, e.g. for restoring a better-balanced offer of medical services and creating more job opportunities.

High hopes are placed on the investments of the National Recovery and Resilience Plan to further boost the agenda's efforts towards a more just and balanced spatial future for rural areas.

Marie-Lorraine Dangeard is senior expert at the European cohesion policy division - General directorate operational and strategic support

This article appears in Rural areas: an eye to the future

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