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PARIS – France's administrative regions — Normandy, Alsace, Burgundy, etc. — have long been part of the identity of citizens of this diverse country. Now, merging some of them is seen as a logical way to save money on bureaucracy, and the French support it — as long as it's someone else's turf.
The recent proposal of France's new prime minister to cut the number of regions in half by 2017 is provoking sharp disputes — especially in areas with strong historical identity. It's somewhat like erasing the state lines between Texas and Oklahoma.
A poll suggests that 68 percent of the French believe the measure to be a necessity — but 77 percent reject the disappearance of their own region. Polling agency LH2 questioned 5,111 people nationwide in February and March. The margin of error was 1.4 percentage points.
"This is where we will learn who the real reformers are and who are the conservatives," French President Francois Hollande said this month on national TV. He's trying to counter his image as a man afraid of unpopular cost-cutting reforms that many economists say his nation needs in order to thrive.
The regions reform is a long-running idea that was considered by the previous conservative government but never implemented, partly because of the difficulty of agreeing on a new map.
The numerous French territorial divisions — 22 regions, 100-plus departments and no fewer than 36,000 communes — is often referred to as a "mille-feuille," after the French dessert made up of multiple layers of puff pastry and cream.
The government wants to halve the number of regions to 11 or 12, though the precise division has not been decided yet. France's overseas territories aren't involved.
The proposal has stirred up the traditional attachment of French people to their regions, and sometimes strong feelings against sharing the same authorities as their neighbors.
In Alsace, bordering Germany in the east, 61 percent of respondents to the poll said they don't want to join with neighboring Lorraine, which has suffered from the deep decline of its mining and metallurgy industry.
"If it happens, we will be on the way to destroying our local law, which currently gives us two extra public holidays and better health care," said Jean Muller, a 55-year-old inhabitant of Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace. Alsace inherited its local legislation from the time when it was part of Germany, until the end of First World War.
If the regions merge, "poor Lorraine would find its interest in receiving subsidies (from the new region), while rich Alsace would pay most of the local taxes," said Muller. A Facebook group against an Alsace-Lorraine merger has gathered more than 10,000 people.
In other places, the reform offers an opportunity to revisit what some inhabitants consider mistakes of history.
Around 10,000 people gathered last month in the city of Nantes, part of the Pays de la Loire region, to ask to join Brittany. Another gathering is planned May 13.
Nantes was part of Brittany until a 1956 reform that created today's regions. Yet Breton culture remained over the years, through food and traditional dances for instance.
"The reunification of Brittany would be emblematic," said Jonathan Guillaume, spokesman for one of the groups that organized the Nantes gathering. "There are two big cities, Nantes and Rennes, quite close to each other and both attractive. They are part of two different regions, which is encouraging competition between them and is leading to more public spending. If they were both in Brittany, they could to work together."
In Normandy, some fears emerged that Brittany might take over the famed Mont Saint-Michel monastery, visited by 3 million people each year and subject of a long-standing dispute between the two regions.
In the meantime, some people are campaigning to merge the current two administrative entities, Upper and Lower Normandy, into a single region.
"We want the region to be based on rational geographic and historical criteria," said Philippe Cleris, member of the group "Welcome to Normandy."
"We have to do in 2014 what we did in 1790," he said, referring to the year after the French Revolution, when the administrative system of French departments was created. It is still in use today.
Only a few regions seem ready to merge so far. One pair ready to go ahead is Burgundy and Franche-Comte in eastern France. The head of the Burgundy region, Francois Patriat, told a news conference that the merging was aiming at cutting spending and making the region more attractive, especially to companies.
"Both regions have a strong identity; there is no reason why it would disappear," said his counterpart from Franche-Comte, Marie-Guite Dufay. "We're not going to touch our Comte cheese, our wine or our Morteau sausage!"