There are four tiers of territorial administration: the State (central government), communes (districts), departments (counties) and regions. Communes, departments and regions are both administrative channels for central government and decentralised territorial units.
THE COMMUNES (districts)
There are about 36,500 of these. They form the first tier and constitute the basic unit of French administrative organisation. They vary in size from small villages (65% of communes have less than 500 inhabitants) to large towns (38 of them have over 100,000 inhabitants). Except for Paris, Lyon and Marseille, which have a special status, each commune is run by a municipal (district) council, headed by the mayor.
The municipal council is an assembly of members elected for a six-year term by universal suffrage. The number of members depends on the population size of the commune. The role of the municipal council is to manage the affairs of the commune, under the authority of the mayor and his or her deputies, who are elected by the municipal councillors. The mayor also represents the State.
The mayor has many functions. To give some examples:- he or she carries out the decisions of the municipal council; proposes the budget of the commune and sees that it is put into effect; draws up and publishes bye-laws and regulations concerning the commune; appoints manages the administrative staff of the commune; and is responsible for ensuring public order, safety and serenity.
As representative of the State, the mayor is an officer of the police judiciaire under the authority of the public prosecutor, and has to note legal offences and receive complaints. He has to keep a register of births, marriages and deaths and celebrate marriages; publish laws and government decisions and see that these are implemented; work with government administration to organise elections; and chair school and hospital committees and the like.
THE DEPARTMENTS (counties)
There are 100 departments, of which 96 are in mainland France and 4 are overseas. They are both administrative divisions and territorial units. As administrative divisions, they are the seats of government administrations, the services of the prefect (chief of police) and the departmental services of the various ministers. The prefect of a department, who may also be a regional prefect, is the representative of the State in a department. He or she is appointed by the government and his or her tasks are:- to ensure that public order and safety are maintained (to this end, he or she has the police at his or her disposal; to manage the services of the State; to see that laws passed and orders given by the government are implemented; to verify that decisions made by territorial units are legal.
As territorial units, the departments are administered by an assembly of elected representatives called the general council. The president of the general council is elected by the councillors and heads the departmental authorities; prepares and implements the council's decisions; is responsible for collecting and spending monies; has police powers; and represents the department in legal cases. General councillors are elected for a six-year renewable term, for a particular canton (the elections are called the cantonales). Each canton (the minimum for a department is two) elects a general councillor. The number of cantons depends on the population of the department.
It is the task of the general council to:- vote on the departmental budget and fix the level of rates and council tax; look after the departmental heritage (which includes the upkeep of lower secondary schools, certain roads and forests). It is responsible for sanitation and health and social services (which represent around 30% of the budget); as well as for the upkeep of and improvements to roads and road-surfaces, bridges, buildings and so forth. In terms of education and the arts, the general council is in charge of building and equipping lower secondary schools, museums, libraries and department archives. It also has an important economic role in financing improvements to farms, grants to businesses, employment incentives and so on. Finally, it may subsidise public organisations such as chambers of commerce and industry or higher education establishments.
The regions in their present form were created by the 1982 law on decentralisation. There were initially 22 in metropolitan France and 4 overseas. The Law of 16 January 2015 created a new regional framework of 13 regions. The National Assembly adopted 25 November 2014, at second reading, the new system of 13 regions, which included the merger of the Poitou-Charentes regions, Limousin and Aquitaine, as well as the Nord-Pas-de-Calais and Picardy.
Each region is run by a regional council elected for six years by universal suffrage. Each regional council is chaired by a president, who is elected by the councillors. They are assisted by a social and economic committee made up of representatives of companies, trade unions, the liberal professions and regional associations. Corsica has a special status: it has an assembly with additional powers.
The main areas in which the regional council has authority are:- regional planning; transport; economic development; in-service training; planning, building, furbishing and running costs of upper secondary schools, research centres, archives and museums. In all these areas, the regional councils have full powers of decision, but the State, in the person of the prefect (chief of police), retains jurisdiction in matters of defence, law, foreign affairs and higher education.
The regional councils have four sources of income:- direct taxation in the form of taxes d'habitation (council tax), foncière (property tax), and professionnelle (business rates); indirect taxation (driving licences and road tax); State subsidies; and borrowing. Regional budgets are not as large as those of departments (counties) and communes (districts), but they have been growing considerably for several years now. They can help implement schemes for agriculture, the environment, social improvements in disadvantaged areas, hospitals, ports, the cultural heritage, sport and so on. But such schemes are often costly and may entail corresponding tax increases. 65% of regional budgets are spent on investments for the future (education and training, transport and so on) and 35% on running costs.
The territorial reform that took effect on August 7, 2015, strengthened the political roles and responsibilities of the 13 regions in France, namely in the sphere of economic development. Regions have now become responsible for supporting their local small- and medium-sized businesses. They must also present detailed five-year plans for development and innovation with an international focus.
Sustainable development and planning has also become the responsibility of the regions. Each region must draft plans for operations in the sectors of land management, urban zoning, pollution control, new and clean energies, housing and waste management.
Regions also control their public school systems, higher education, professional training programmes and public transport. However, regions share partial responsibility with their internal departments for matters concerning culture, sports, tourism and regional languages.
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