Guide to the 2014 French Locals

Election Preview Part I

Election Preview Part II

First Round Results Analysis

Coming soon.

Local Government in France

Although France remains one of the more centralized states in the European Union, it nonetheless has an absurdly complex structure of local government which is riddled which few can fully understand. Everybody in government, however, tends to have something to say about it and every government since the first decentralization laws in 1982 have tried to leave their mark on the local government framework, largely by messing it up even more.

Indeed, one of the hallmarks of French local governments is that a small clique of Parisian technocrats pretend to have the magic solution which will fix all problems overnight. Most of the time, nobody likes their solutions and they end up failing miserably; leaving local government as a total mess until a new clique comes and the cycle starts again.

The beginning of true decentralization in France, long influenced and guided by the Jacobin heritage of the Revolution, began in 1982 under the leadership of Gaston Defferre, the Minister of the Interior and Decentralization (1981-1984). The 1982 laws, which greatly expanded the powers and administrative responsibilities of existing local government structures (departments and communes) and created regions as full-blown territorial collectivities (collectivités territoriales), is often known as “Act I” of decentralization. It was subsequently followed by minor reforms (1992, 1999), a major reform in 2003-2004 under Raffarin (styled as ‘”Act II” of decentralization), another major structural reform with Sarkozy in 2010 and now the bases of another significant reform (sometimes called “Act III”).

Although the powers devolved by the State to territorial collectivities have increased significantly since 1982, they remain rather modest compared to other European countries (particularly Spain, Germany or even Italy). The heads of French regional executives, for example, are hardly comparable to Minister-Presidents in Germany or presidents of the CCAA in Spain. Nevertheless, despite the limited scope of their powers, territorial collectivities have been able to be quite influential/powerful because of the clause de compétence générale, which has allowed communes/departments/regions to intervene in all matters which they can argue to be in the local public interest. The 2010 reform abolished the clause de compétence générale for departments and regions, the new PS government has signaled that they might reinstate it in their reform of the reform.

Here is a rundown of the main structures of local government in France (nb: this only applies to Metropolitan France and the five DOMs; the ‘overseas collectivities’ have more devolved powers and a very different structure of local government):

1. The State (and the European Union) retains much power – most importantly legislative power. The state passes the laws and policies which may then be administered by the ‘territorial collectivities’ (Collectivités territoriales). In terms of local government structure, the state more often than not has the lead in spearheading (if not imposing) new structures and reforms; it retains the final word and law-making powers on all matters relating to territorial collectivities and changes to the structure of local government.

2. 27 Regions: There are 27 regions in France, 22 of which are in Metro France (including Corsica); metropolitan regions are composed of two or more departments. The current regions were defined in 1956 for purposes of economic development, strengthened a bit in 1972 with the creation of embryonic regional councils (which were unelected and largely useless) before they became territorial collectivities with significant powers and an elected regional council in 1982. The first regional elections were held in 1986. The regional council is elected for six-year terms and it is led by the president of the regional council; since 2004, the regional council is elected at the regional level (with departmental sections) under the two-round system. 75% of seats are allocated proportionally to all lists which have won over 5% of the vote in the decisive round (in all but one case since 2004, this is the runoff where only lists with over 10% of the vote in the first round are qualified although those over 5% may ‘merge’ with another list), the remaining 25% are given as a majority bonus to the winning list.

Regions are responsible for: vocational training/professional development (defining and applying regional policies under a national policy), high school (lycées) infrastructure and maintenance, culture (shared with the State and the two lower levels), sports, tourism, territorial planning (preparing regional plans in collaboration with the State), environment (regional parks, shares responsibilities for protected zones and water with the State and the two lower levels), infrastructure (river ports), roads (regional planning), rail transport (TER services), economic development and some international promotion.


  • Corsica: The island has a special status since 1982 (it held direct regional elections in 1982), reformed in 1991 and 2002, and has slightly more powers than a mainland region. The regional government is structured differently, with the directly elected legislature (Assembly) and a distinct regional executive (executive council)
  • All five overseas regions (Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, Reunion, Mayotte) are made up of only a single department; four of the five overseas regions (all except Mayotte) have a regional council in addition to a general council
  • Mayotte has no regional council but it is considered as a region.

Each region also has a ‘regional prefect’, nominated by the President, who is the representative of the State who controls the decentralized public services of the State, territorial administration and public safety.

3. 101 Departments: Departments, 101 in total, 96 in metro France, are a Revolutionary creation (1789). Prior to 1982, although departments (continuously since the Third Republic except for the occupation) had a directly elected general council, the departments were largely administrative divisions in which executive power was held by the prefect, nominated by the President. The 1982 reform transferred executive powers to the president of the general council, leaving the prefect as the representative of the State with authority over public safety, territorial administration (implementing, in some cases deciding on, changes in local government structures). The prefect also has oversight over the actions of territorial collectivities, but only a posteriori control. The general council, as it currently stands, is elected by a two-round system in single-member constituencies (cantons). There are 4,055 cantons in France – with huge population inequalities (largely overrepresentation of rural areas) because most cantonal boundaries have not been redistributed for at least 100 years (!).

Departments are responsible for: middle school (collèges) infrastructure and maintenance, culture (shared power), social action and welfare policies (organization and administration, including the RMI and RSA), advice and approval for territorial planning, environment (shared power over water, protected zones; departmental plan on waste management), seaports (commercial or fishing), departmental roads, transportation (including school transportation) outside urban areas, a role in social housing and some security-related matters (road safety, fire, emergencies).


  • Paris is a department and a single commune at the same time, with the municipal council (Conseil de Paris) serving as the general council.

Communes and EPCIs (Intercommunalité)

4. 36,681 Communes: At the base of French local government, and of particular interest for the purposes of this guide, are over 36,000 communes (municipalities) in metro France and the DOMs. In addition, 3 overseas collectivities – Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (2), French Polynesia (58) and New Caledonia (33) – are also divided into communes, like the rest of France, and they vote at the same time in municipal elections. The only parts of French territory which are not covered by communes are Saint-Martin (a single overseas collectivity), Saint-Barthélemy (like Saint-Martin), Wallis-et-Futuna (3 traditional kingdoms), French Southern and Antarctic Lands (no permanent residents) and Clipperton Island (uninhabited atoll).

France has, by far, the most communes of any EU country: Germany has about 12,000, Italy and Spain have a bit over 8000 each. The vast majority of French communes have less than 3,500 inhabitants – in fact, about half of all communes have less than 500 inhabitants. A good number of communes have under 100 inhabitants, in a few cases some have less than 10 people (the smallest populated commune, Rochefourchat, has a legal population of one). Six communes, symbolically, have no inhabitants: these six communes in the Meuse were destroyed during the Battle of Verdun in 1916 and never rebuilt. They have retained a status as communes (officially, communes mortes pour la France), but they are totally uninhabited and administered by a mayor and two deputies nominated by the prefect.

Communes are a Revolutionary creation, dating back to 1789 when the new Revolutionary authorities established about 40000 communes, largely corresponding to religious parishes. Indeed, almost every single commune in France has a Church (in addition, nowadays, to the obligatory local monument aux morts for the war dead). Until 1870, the State’s policy was to abolish communes with excessively low populations which were no longer viable and creating communes in areas where the original map was problematic (large territory, hamlets blocked by physical features). By the waning days of the Second Empire, municipal mergers (fusions) were unpopular with the local populations, and the Republican opposition promised emancipation for communes. A 1884 law established the main structures of local government, the broad principles of which have remained unchanged to this day. Each commune has a municipal council directly elected by the population and a mayor elected by the municipal council. The 1884 law also established the clause de compétence générale for communes.

In part because of their long history and Revolutionary heritage, communes are still largely perceived as the base of local democracy and decision-making – a core “republican value”. Citizens are very attached to their commune and they have always tended to care a great deal about local politics and local democracy (particularly in rural areas), much more so than in other countries – such as the United Kingdom or Canada/USA – were few people care all that much about local government.

The extremely large number of communes in France, combined to successive rural exoduses since the Industrial Revolution which have reduced the populations of thousands of small rural communes, has made local governance problematic. Successive governments since the 1890s, and particularly since 1945, have struggled to come up with solutions to this fundamental challenge to local democracy. Given that communes, by and large, are hostile to mergers with larger (more viable) communes; most governments since the 1890s have usually shied away from promoting ambitious municipal merger schemes.

The main exception to that tradition came in 1971, with the Marcellin law (after interior minister Raymond Marcellin), which sought to promote municipal mergers. Individual prefects were instructed to come up with merger plans, which were to be approved by municipal councils. These could either be full mergers, in which one commune would disappear entirely within another, or retain some individual autonomy (for example, a delegated mayor and a decentralized town hall providing vital records) as a commune associée (associated commune). The Marcellin law was a failure: individual prefects acted differently (either proposing vast mergers, or limited and partial mergers depending on the region) and created a mess, and the associated commune status was unattractive. Between 1971 and 2009, only 1100 communes effectively disappeared (most in the 1970s). There are currently 712 associate communes. A good number of the original mergers and associations were later dissolved, with old communes regaining their independence.

The 2010 Sarkozy reform has, once again, tried to encourage municipal mergers and effectively replaced the moribund Marcellin law’s associated communes with the status of commune nouvelle (new communes) which is pretty much the same thing as associated communes (although slightly closer to a full merger) with the guidelines for their creations not all that different from the ones in the Marcellin law. It has had some success thus far, the most notable creations might be the merger of Bois-Guillaume and Bihorel in the Seine-Maritime and the amalgamation of a few towns around Baugé to create Beaugé-en-Anjou (Maine-et-Loire).

However, given the utter failure of the Marcellin law and the general impracticality of merging communes, governments have been forced to consider other structures to make local governance viable.

Communes or EPCI are responsible for: elementary school (buildings, equipment), culture (shared power), youth (nurseries, recreation centres), sports (equipment and subsidies), tourism, local urban policy/planning, advice and approval for territorial planning, environment (shared power over water, protected zones; waste management, water sanitation and distribution), local marinas, communal roads, urban transportation/public transit, school transportation, management of local public/social housing, municipal police forces, traffic and parking.

EPCI (Intercommunalité)

To remedy to the challenges to economic viability posed by municipal fragmentation in France, communes have been compelled to cooperate amongst themselves. Intercommunal cooperation first emerged in the last decade of the nineteenth century, but it only began to take its current form in the 1960s following rapid post-war urban/suburban expansion, rural depopulation and the creation of villes nouvelles (new towns).

Intercommunal cooperation takes two distinct, but overlapping and co-existing, forms: loose “associative” cooperation to provide certain public services or utilities (water, electricity, waste management, school transportation) or more cohesive “federative” cooperation which has more powers, responsibilities and more ambitious aims including economic development.

The structure of intercommunal cooperation is thus complex, but at the same time increasingly important. Intercommunal structures have gained more and more powers and financial resources, at the expense of communes but also from departments, regions and the State. Given that a major revamp of the communal map of France is next to impossible, intercommunalities are widely recognized as the solution to the problem.

Intercommunal cooperation structures are known as établissements publics de coopération intercommunale (EPCI) or intercommunalité.

EPCI without fiscal autonomy

The oldest form of intercommunal cooperation is the very loose “associative” form whereby communes – but also other territorial collectivities (departments, regions) – join together to provide one or more public services or utilities. The first such form of intercommunal cooperation was created in 1890, expanded in 1935 and 1959.

1. 10,055 Syndicat intercommunal à vocation unique (Sivu): The oldest form of basic intercommunal cooperation created in 1890, the Sivu may only provide one service. At the outset, communes joined together to provide services such as electricity or running water which they could not provide on their own. Today, Sivu includes syndicates with resposibility for waste management, school transportation and so forth.

2. 3,296 Syndicats mixtes: Created in 1935, the syndicats mixtes associate different territorial collectivities (EPCI, departments, regions) and, in some cases, distinct legal personalities. They do not directly provide services, but they are a forum for different territorial collectivities and actors to cooperate amongst themselves or debate certain issues. The 2010 reform allowed for the creation of Pôles métropolitains, a kind of mixed syndicate, aimed at associating different urban areas (for example, the ‘Sillon Lorrain’ between Metz, Nancy, Thionville and Epinal).

The Paris Métropole is an example of a mixed syndicate, made up of 203 territorial collectivities including general councils, the regional councils and over 100 communes. It serves as some kind of vague think-tank/study group on issues related to the Greater Paris projects.

3. 1,329 Syndicat intercommunal à vocations multiples (Sivom): The Sivom were created in 1959 and are similar to the Sivu, with the exception that a Sivom provides more than one service.

Communes may belong to more than one such structure.

These 3 structures do not have fiscal autonomy – meaning they cannot set their own tax rates – and they are dependent on the individual contributions from each communes/territorial collectivity; but also additional taxes distinct from communal taxes and state transfers.

  1. In Guyane and Martinique, region and departement are fused, with one council (Loi organique n° 2011-883 du 27 juillet 2011 relative aux collectivités régies par l’article 73 de la Constitution + Loi n° 2011-884 du 27 juillet 2011 relative aux collectivités territoriales de Guyane et de Martinique )

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