The Grand Paris (Express) is running late: When will Paris become a true metropolitan region?

U Bahn
© Getty Images / Kiran Ridley 

For the last ten years, a new infrastructure project has been underway in the capital of France: the Grand Paris Express will double the existing metro network with more than 60 stations and 200 kilometres of railway lines underground. New residential areas and office complexes with an investment volume of more than 4.5 billion euros are developing alongside the metro stations, which are being built from Charles de Gaulle airport in the north to Versailles in the south. Despite the promise made by French president Emmanuel Macron, this enormous project now cannot be completed by the 2024 Olympic Games as planned. Why is it taking so long?

Less is More: Overly Complex Administrative Structures are Preventing Efficient Decision-Making

The project is managed by the Société du Grand Paris, a state enterprise with a supervisory board made up of mayors and members of the central government. The project has been modified several times and faces technical, financial and social challenges: from collapsed and flooded tunnels and an exceeded budget to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. “[The Grand Paris Express] will be finished,” Monteils, the head of the supervisory board appointed by Macros, continued to promise in March 2021. In mid-July, however, it was announced that the new metro lines are now only expected to be opened in stages from 2025 to 2030.

The more the current government tries to see the project through at all costs, the more necessary the coordination of multiple political establishments becomes for its successful performance. In reality, however, governance by the different institutions is at cross purposes, with overlapping spheres of competence in urban planning and infrastructure. Together with the city of Paris, the mostly socialist-led communes, which are combined into 12 Établissements publics territoriaux (municipal authorities), make up the Métropole du Grand Paris which, although responsible for urban planning for the entire metropolis, has not been actively involved in urban planning since its formation over five years ago. It makes unanimous decisions only based on the principle of consensus. Furthermore, it is not a member of the supervisory board of the Société du Grand Paris either. Instead, it simply signed a partnership agreement in 2021 – ten years after building work in the mega-project began. This demonstrates the conflict between the two institutions: the Société, which represents the central government, and the Métropole, which is made up of the municipal authorities and represents their interests. The Métropole du Grand Paris is therefore unable to exert any influence over the planning and performance of the project; instead, it must adapt to the routes that have already been decided if it wants to be involved in urban planning at all.  It was for this reason that in autumn 2020, two delegates of the fraction of the La République en Marche (LREM) presented a bill, proposing the abolition of the Métropole du Grand Paris and the reorganisation of the administrative structure. After being elected President in 2017, however, Emmanuel Macron arranged a conference with the municipalities to launch a similar reform and introduce a truly decentralised municipal authority – a syndicat mixte – but with no success. This is also why, in light of the next presidential elections in 2022, the current government is placing such great emphasis on setting the course for the completion of the project and tackling a reform of the administrative structure in the Paris metropolitan area. The situation seems to be more favourable this time because on 21 July 2021, the Senate accepted a legislative proposal on decentralisation and reinforcement at municipal level and passed it on the National Assembly. This would pave the way for a reform of the metropolitan region if Macron were re-elected.

Stick to the Goal: Connect the Centre and the Periphery

Despite its difficulties, the project plays a key role in bringing Paris and the surrounding area together as one. The area of the capital city itself is only 12% of the metropolitan area. Only 25% of the people who live in the city of Paris actually live in the municipality of Paris. For example, the well-known district La Défense is not within the capital city itself, but within four neighbouring communes.

The socioeconomic differences between the capital city itself and its metropolitan areas are becoming more and more obvious: In a report to the Senate in March 2021, Senator Didier Rambourd (LREM) and Philippe Dalier (Les Républicains) stated that “Paris is the French metropolis with the biggest disparities in income”. In particular, the residents of Saint-Denis, a Banlieue north of Paris and the first port of call for many migrants, are expected to suffer as a result of this. Many people work in the service sector throughout the entire agglomeration but do not have the same access to public transport as the residents of other parts of Paris and the surrounding area. At the furthest edge of the city, single-family residential areas are taking up valuable open space and their residents are spending more and more time on the city highways. In this respect, the aim of the “Grand Paris Express” project is also to create a feeling of living in a shared Paris and resisting the decoupling of the centre and the periphery.

How Can a Metropolitan Region Grow Out of the Infrastructure Project?

A metro project, however big it is, does not make a successful metropolitan region on its own. A regional economic study of the effects of the project on the labour market found that the stronger agglomeration effects of the metro project could actually increase companies’ and residents’ productivity because better access to the labour market would be created throughout the entire region. This would lead to the migration of more people from France, the EU and the rest of the world. If the supply of housing does not keep pace with the migration of new residents, however, rents will increase, diminishing residents’ higher incomes significantly. There would then be the risk of the positive effects of the 200 kilometres of railway lines fizzling out. It is not therefore enough to build a new metro line; this must be accompanied by a modern, non-bureaucratic administrative structure so that the positive effects of increased productivity can be felt.

Centralised Metropolises and Decentralised Metropolitan Regions in Europe

The EU Member States have different approaches to the development of major cities and metropolises. Besides its powers to promote regional development through its structural funds and the financing of research projects, the EU has barely any influence over the urban area. In new EU Member States in particular, economic and land planning policies focus on a few major cities within the country as a way of driving state development forward. In Romania, for example, the few metropolitan regions have more autonomy than the rest of the country. Issues of municipal autonomy or infrastructure in rural areas take a back seat in favour of a growing metropolis, usually the capital city.

The idea of a “European metropolitan region”, which creates a network of economically powerful major cities and their associated neighbouring communes, arose in Germany in the 1990s. It was intended to prevent everything being concentrated in a few individual mega-cities. France is completely different, solely as a result of its economic structure, which has historically been focused on the capital city. However, doesn’t the new decentralised municipal authority of the Grand Paris Express provide an opportunity to move on from the traditional understanding of a capital city?

Grand Paris Express as Decentralised Municipal Authority for More Democracy and Local Identity?

For Paris and its metropolitan area, the administrative route that will be taken remains to be seen. This needs to be clarified prior to completion in 2030, however, because a large metro network will do very little good if the development of new residential areas near the new stations is not coordinated and does not happen quickly enough. In any case, a decentralised municipal authority in which the communes retain their autonomy but work together in different functions, as proposed by Macron, would combine the advantages of a metropolis while retaining the communal identity of the member communes.

Decentralised metropolitan regions are a way of reinforcing communal identity within communes. A study by the ifo Institute on behalf of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation found that a strong communal identity is associated with stronger social and political engagement locally. Through clearly defined cooperation with metropolitan regions, these communes can more effectively tackle the problems that they cannot solve on their own. One good example of this is the metropolitan region of Ruhr, an association of 53 towns and cities with a total of five million residents. It is responsible for general planning for the entire region and economic development at metropolitan level and it gives its member communes as much autonomy as possible. Despite this, there is still room for even more cooperation here, for example, in respect of transport infrastructure or public administration. There could also be new services at metropolitan region level that could be financed using the communes’ funds. Through clever economic development and marketing, it is possible to convey an image of an united metropolis for others without restricting autonomy in the communes.

In this respect, the Grand Paris Express mega-project actually provides an opportunity to bring the citizens of Paris and its surrounding area together into one large, new whole, to bring local democracy to life and to take the economic boom that is so urgently needed beyond the city and into the country. This will still require a lot more hard work, money and political will, however.


Boris Kagan is a master’s student at Sciences Po Paris with an interest in the effect of urban planning on metropolises in the global north and south. He is a scholarship holder at the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.