The ‘reclaiming’ by Paris of its water back into public hands is a paradox in the homeland of transnational water companies and at a time when the European Commission rather favours the liberalisation of public services ‘of general economic interest’. Yet what has happened is more complex. A quick historical review of management formulas in Europe reveals both the specific model of delegation to private companies made in France, and also the maintained direct labour management formula (with direct public procurement by municipalities) used in several French cities to be presented. Paris has a long history of public procurement of water, whilst using a private company for metering and billing customers. Mayor Chirac changed to a semi-public company with public production and private distribution contracted out to two private companies (with responsibility for the right and left banks). Mayor Delanoë managed to reclaim the distribution in a commercial but public institution called an Établissement Public à caractère Industriel et Commercial (EPIC); this had unsuspected impacts on water supply issue in the suburbs. While Paris can obviously run its services directly, the emerging issue appears to be multi-level governance at the metropolitan level, rather than just a public–private debate. This paper also discusses in detail the arguments put forward by Anne le Strat, Deputy Mayor for Water, in favour of returning to public control, and presents the difficulties of assessing the performance of a service operator, under both delegation and direct management.

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