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Version française de cette page : FRANCE. Les Offices fonciers, une « Utopie Foncière », d’après Edgar Pisani.

FRANCE. Land Offices, a « Land Utopia », adapted from Edgar Pisani

Rédigé par : Gwenaëlle Mertz, Translation of the 2010 French document: Sjoerd Wartena

Date de rédaction :

Organismes : Association pour contribuer à l’Amélioration de la Gouvernance de la Terre, de l’Eau et des Ressources naturelles (AGTER), Institut d’étude du développement économique et social (IEDES), Université Paris1 Panthéon Sorbonne

Type de document : Article / document de vulgarisation

Documents sources

Edgar Pisani. Utopie foncière. Ed. Gallimard, Paris, 1977.


Aware of the limitations of managing agricultural land, Edgar Pisani, the Minister of Agriculture who was one of the architects of the modernization of French agriculture in the 1960s, offers two decades later an in-depth analysis of the question, and the general lines of an innovative legal framework. His proposals will be included in the program of the Socialist Party for the elections of 1981. The central piece of this system is the Land Office (Office Foncier), which would have had the function of gradually reconciling collective rights on the territory and private use rights.

Once the Left came to power, the land project of E. Pisani, too « revolutionary », was quickly abandoned. While some practical arrangements may now seem to have aged a bit, his proposals are still overall of remarkable relevance. This sheet presents a summary. It is an invitation to all those interested in the management of rural land, in France or other countries, to read or reread « L’utopie foncière » (Land Utopia), a book that was just reissued in 2010.

An audacious proposal

In 1977, Edgard Pisani published « L’utopie foncière ». Under a deliberately provocative title, this former minister of agriculture (1962-1966) and equipment (1966-1967) under De Gaulle, proposed a new management of the land to solve the problems that began to emerge as a result of the modernization reform of French agriculture, that Pisani himself had largely contributed to setting up.

Indeed, if this reform has been effective in relation to its objectives of raising the level of production, in order to achieve at least self-sufficiency, in particular thanks to an improvement in productivity, it has led to the disappearance of many farms and created higher land prices and in consequence a growing problem of access to land to produce. This steady rise in the price of land increases an ever greater value for owners when they resale. The transfer of holdings within the family becomes more difficult as the fixed capital / land value goes up and doesn’t facilitate a new installation, even more because the cost of access to land involves indebtedness that limits the possibility to make productive investments in addition to the land. Finally, farms are being encouraged to grow ever larger in order to make their investments profitable, leading farmers into a vicious circle of expansion that puts pressure on the land.

Faced with these problems, after joining the Socialist Party in 1974, E. Pisani participated in the drafting of the program of the Union of the Left for the presidential election of 1981 on the agricultural aspect. In “Land Utopia”, his ideas on this subject are united. After a first-person start of the book, where he explains how he was confronted with agriculture, the book includes an essay on the relationship between man and land in France from a historical point of view and a legislative proposal to transform the system of land ownership.

This law sets itself the objective of carrying out a new policy of spatial planning and living environment that takes into account everything it can have as consequences. One of the preferred means to achieve this goal is the transition to collective ownership of the soil.

In order to make this law applicable and operational, in addition to the establishment of a land register, register of real property values, on which a recasting of the property tax would be based, Pisani proposes the establishment of land offices, institutions responsible for the management of land in France.

1. The mission of the Land Offices

Article 26 of the draft law defines this mission as follows:

« The Office’s management of its land assets is aimed at the execution of the public service, the conduct of spatial planning policy and the living environment, and the control of the land market. »1

E. Pisani wants to show that his goal is not to abruptly abolish private ownership of the land, in principle, but rather to achieve these goals, which is ultimately to ensure that the soil is at the service of all citizens, in their interest. Land Offices must allow sufficient dominance of the land market to make speculation on land impossible. They should provide the public services with what they need to fulfil their missions and control the soil to pursue a coherent spatial planning and living environment policy. The Offices must have control over the land and its use, with the sole concern of the public service. The text « postulates that the soil is the instrument and the object of a collective policy and that, in both cases, the community has the need and the right to possess it ».

With these objectives, the Land Office fulfils a function specified in Article 21:

« The function of the Land Office is the acquisition and management of all pieces of land whose collective ownership commands a planning and living environment policy:

  • a) It receives by transfer all the properties belonging to the public authorities and establishments whatever their affectation and their use.

  • b) It will be put in possession of all unoccupied and ownerless properties.

  • c) It operates on behalf of the communities all the land acquisitions that they have decided to carry out.

  • d) For the realization of land reserves, it acquires all the land it can acquire, amicably by a firm purchase or in return for a life annuity, or by exercising his right of pre-emption. » 2

This makes the Offices the sole operators of land acquisitions in the country. They are the managers and administrators. Edgar Pisani points out, however, that this acquisition process does not correspond to a massive nationalization of the land, but can be achieved gradually by acquiring only the part of the land that is marketed or mutated each year (about 1/6000 th of France’s farmland per year in that time).

Their goal is to control the ground in order to implement the general land-policy. But unlike the SAFER:

« The Land Office administers the property that it acquires or receives. It cannot retrocede them. These assets are either assigned to a public service, or leased, or assigned in the long term, or assigned without limitation of duration in guaranteed family possession. »3

It can be seen here that Land Offices are not simply intended to regulate the land market but to gradually acquire the lands of the Nation, with the aim of making them available to all, always in interest of the community.

2. The legal framework of the Land Offices

« To cover the entire national territory, public administrative intermunicipal institutions with financial autonomy are created and called Land Offices. » 4

Article 20 above specifies the local nature of the Offices, which have been chosen voluntarily because it is better able to achieve the decentralization of the spatial planning policy. As it would have been too complicated and costly to create one for each municipality, each office must group together several municipalities under whose authority it is placed - and not under a deconcentrated authority of the national Government. They must together cover the entire national territory. Offices must be financially self-sufficient, to enable them to act more quickly but also to guarantee their impartiality.

« The Land Office is administered by a Council composed of representatives of the municipalities; this Council elects its president. For the definition of its orientations, its rules of action and its programs, the Council benefits from the opinions and deliberations of an Economic, Social and Cultural Land Committee, which is composed of the qualified representatives of the various interests involved. When the opinion of this Committee is issued in the form of a formal deliberation, the Board may depart from it only by a majority of 3/5 of its members. The Office publishes a program of action every five years; he publishes every year a budget and an administrative account. The control of the management of the Office is ensured in the same conditions in which the control of the municipal management is ensured. »5

The elected municipal representatives manage the activities of the offices, but in order to ensure that the decisions are democratic and representative of the general interest, the Council of the Office is assisted in its decisions by a social, economic and cultural Land Committee, which brings together the representatives of the different interests involved. Thus, the population is invited to participate in the definition and the orientation of the planning policy of its space, allowing the expression of the will of the community on this subject. The desire to place this planning policy under the eyes of the population reminds the participative management of the city of Porto Alegre, in the desire to control the work of elected officials and to guide it progressively. Although the power of the Committee is not completely direct over decisions, it is nevertheless very real through the possibility of not renewing the elected officials in subsequent elections.

With regard to the financing of the Offices, Article 24 states:

« The operations of the Land Office are funded by the communities and institutions on whose behalf they are conducted. It may be commissioned to carry out certain works of development, as it can, with the guarantee of the municipalities which constitute it, borrow the sums necessary for the acquisitions which enter its object. »6

3. Land management by the Offices

The offices therefore offer the lands they acquire to the various actors of the society according to the adequacy of their project with the general local will, expressed in particular within the Committees. This provision, whatever it is, is realized by means of a contract. The proposed law frames these contracts, which will be differentiated according to the type of property, its purpose, and the contracting person.

« For their main home, households get the allocation of a private parcel or an undivided right. These parcels and these rights are granted without limitation of duration since they are transmitted in direct line succession. The same applies to agricultural land that is used for a family farm. Any de jure or de facto sublease of these assets is prohibited. When the direct line goes out, the property and the buildings it carries are automatically returned to the Office. »7

In order not to oppose frontally what one appreciates in private property, the proposed law provides that each household will be able to benefit from a personal plot of land which it will enjoy and that it will be able to transmit, only in direct line , to its descendants. The same applies to agricultural land. Everyone will therefore always have the impression of having their own property because the concession has no time limit even if in fact their are not the owner in the sense that we hear today. In fact, if the direct line goes out, the enjoyment of the property cannot be transferred to the more distant family. For all other types of use, the concession should range from 18 to 72 years according to E. Pisani. At the end of the concessions, for whatever reason, the land returns to the Office, with any improvements that have been made. The lessee who made them may be indemnified under certain conditions.

In short, «  the contract of guaranteed family possession or concession specifies:

  • the exact description of the property at the time of taking possession;

  • the method of calculating the fee;

  • the expenses to which the lessee agrees in respect of the object of the contract, its maintenance and its environment;

  • commitments made by the Board or by the community in the context of rural or urban development plans. »8

This proposed law allows the opening of a reflection on the rules that could found a new land management system and what it carries. The approach by the contract seems interesting insofar as it allows a certain flexibility. Offices, by choosing lessees and setting the limits of land use, could have a strong binding power and would be perhaps more effective than the law, imposing environmental constraints for example. However, the implementation of such a system could block the land market during the transition period (people who do not want to sell to remain owners of their property at any price). It could also lead to the creation of a parallel land market to bypass regulations. Finally, the heavy management of such offices would require a large bureaucracy and safeguards should be installed to prevent the concessions become a new object of clientelism.

A proposal included in the Socialist Party’s programme, but which the Party finally abandoned after coming to power in 1981

The reflection on the land issue in rural France has occupied an important place in the 1970s. Many actors have contributed, peasant trade unionists, researchers and politicians. The establishment of the Société Civile des Terres du Larzac, after the victory of the peasants who were fighting against the expansion of the military camp, responded to the desire to test a management mechanism of the type « Land Office » (see the sheet written by José Bové).

The program of the left in 1981 retained the establishment of the Land Offices9. The difficulties of the first left-wing government under the presidency of François Mitterrand with the representatives of the farmers came partly from his will to question a co-management which did not recognize trade union pluralism, and therefore to attack the monopoly of the National Federation of Farmers’ Unions.

In addition, the Land Offices project was very unpopular with many farmers who were very attached to their prerogatives in land matters. Finally, the situation of the land market had evolved: the situation of land scarcity, of competition between farmers, which was so strong in the 1960s, no longer existed at the beginning of the 1980s. Except in some cereal regions, the land-price was falling, as well as the number of candidates for installation. In 1982, François Mitterrand himself publicly announced the renunciation of the Land Offices.10

Even though Edgar Pisani’s bill did not succeed, his thinking is still of great interest today11. This text shows that it is possible to think of land management that serves the public interest, with proven land tenure security, but without being based on an absolute private property regime. But history has shown that such changes require the gradual building of consensus and that the modalities of implementing general principles of interest can pose serious problems.

Gwenaëlle Mertz, a student at IEDES (Paris 1 - La Sorbonne), wrote this document during her Master 2 internship with AGTER in the summer of 2010.

Translation to English: Sjoerd Wartena, mainly from Google Traduction (2019)

This document is part of a thematic file prepared by AGTER, presenting the most significant measures and tools within the framework of French rural land laws conceived after 1945 and its most emblematic actors.

1 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 172

2 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 164

3 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 171

4 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 163

5 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 166

6 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 170

7 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 174

8 Utopie foncière, E. Pisani, Gallimard, Paris, 1977, p. 182

9 As well as that of Product Offices and a Quantum System, which had the objective of guaranteeing a minimum income to small producers producing under average productivity conditions. That would prevent them to be forced in the productivity race of “more and more”, without worrying about whether or not there is a demand for their product, as the additional quantities delivered are paid for at a lower price. (Servolin, Claude. L’agriculture moderne, Le Seuil, 1989. p 223.

10 Claude Servolin, L’agriculture moderne. Le Seuil, 1989. p 230-232.

11 It is no coincidence that his work, which had been out of print for a long time, has recently been reissued.