BUYING A HOUSE IN FRANCE - REGIONS, DEPARTMENTS, & COMMUNES OF FRANCE.

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LOCAL ADMINISTRATIVE DIVISIONS OF FRANCE - BRIEF HISTORY

A Market in Manche 1.
MARKET DAY IN A MANCHE TOWN - 1
A Market in Manche 2.
MARKET DAY IN A MANCHE TOWN - 2

French tomatosCHANGING FRANCE

If you're looking to buy a house in France, whether to live in, or as a holiday home, it is useful to understand something of how the local and regional administrative system is structured, and the history of how it has evolved. After all, you will have to interact with the system and it's officials in many aspects of your French property ownership, whether it be in relation to building & planning consent, paying local property taxes, or maybe complaining to the Marie about the state of the public drains.

Attempts by various Governments since the 2nd World War to rationalise the French administrative system, mostly created during Napoleonic times, have had somewhat of a stop go record: largely due to the resistance of those with vested interests who would see their power diminished under any new system, but also because of a failure of nerve by some administrations when it came to actually implementing the proposed reforms. (Fear of encouraging secessionist movements, and worries about an opposing political party being able to create a strong regional power base to challenge central government, were two of the main worries). Nevertheless, although slow, various changes have taken place over the years, resulting in a more modern and perhaps a more locally democratic system than the one that preceded it.
Shown below is a very brief history of some of the changes that have occured.

COMMUNES

The communes are the smallest local administrative areas in France. Created during the French Revolution, they replaced the existing pre-revolutionary historical parishes and chartered cities.
Following the setting up of the first commune in Paris in 1789, communes were established (initially spontaneously, but later enshrined in law by the National Assembly) all over France.
Most communes are villages or hamlets, though some are large towns.
There were 36,383 communes in France in the early 1980s, a number scarcely changed since Napoleonic times. (Information sourced from: FRANCE IN THE 1980s - By John Ardagh)
According to Institut national de la statistique et des ètudes èconomique (I.N.S.E.E.)., the number of communes in metropolitan France in January 2010 was 36,570.
With the migration from rural areas to the cities that increasingly occured after the end of the 2nd World War, some of the smaller communes became so depopulated that, in extreme cases, a commune might only contain three people, and consequently have to draw on the inhabitants of ajoining communes to form a council. To rectify this, governments of both the left and right have subsequently tried to encourage smaller communes to amalgamate with neighbouring communes to make the structure of local government more rational: although they have often encountered some resistance to these proposals at local level and success has been patchy.
Each commune has its own democratically elected Marie & council.
The commune, its Marie and council, will assume the most importance for you once you've bought your house in France. Having, in the restructuring of the early 1980s, been given more direct control over the budget for local government spending, the Marie is a more powerful figure than his equivalent in the U.K.: being responsible for your local government services and amenities, and the allocation of funds towards those projects he deems a priority.

Aquitaine, France.DEPARTMENTS

The departments were also created by the technocrats of the French Revolution. They were intended to be the top level of local government, and are sub-divided into arrondissments, cantons, and communes.
Except in Paris, the departments are all roughly the same size in area (though not population), being based on the distance a coach and horses carrying officials could travel out and back from the capital city of the department between sunrise and sundown.
This criteria had long been irrelevant, and their size was considered to small for a modern local government structure, so they were reformed in 1964 by being grouped into regions.
Each department has its own préfecture (headed by the préfet), which comes under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior, and as such, represents the national government at local level.
Historically the préfet had, in theory, wielded considerable influence: being the official with overall responsibility for the affairs of the department as well as for the préfecture, and acting as the key link between Paris and the departments. In practice the conflicts created by this system could sometimes find the préfet (even if he was in accord with the local maries about the need for some local project to be carried out) frustrated by the vested interests within the ministries in Paris working to their own agendas. The resulting uncertainty about whether necessary funding would be forthcoming from Paris, or not, did not aid the smooth planning and implementation of local development projects. This system, the so called 'tutelage', whereby Paris maintained a stranglehold over local government affairs, had endured since Napoleonic times. (Ironically, during the numerous changes instituted in the Paris/local government relationship, from the start of the French Revolution in 1789, to the restoration of the Bourbons in 1814, there was, at one period, more local democracy - in the form of indirect local elections - than later existed in the system up until the changes of 1964.)
The reforms of the early 1980s were an attempt to make local government more decentralised and democratic; locally elected general councils (Conseil Général) responsible for the governance of each department were instituted, and the overall control of each department was ceded from the préfet to the president of the Conseil Général.
The Conseil Général's powers encompass areas such as promoting the department's economic development, welfare, and the building and maintenance of local infrastructure: for example schools and roads.
The préfecture meanwhile retains its responsibility for, among other things, the police and firefighters, identity cards, passports, driving licenses, and vehicle registrations.

Map of France.REGIONS

The present 22 regions in metropolitan France, created in 1964, each contain several departments. Most, but not all, of the regions are based on the ancient historical regions of France called the provinces.
Midi-Pyrénées is an example of one that isn't; it was formed out of parts of Languedoc and some other historic provinces.
Although each region had been given a regional council (Conseil Régional) in 1972, they consisted of nominated members and acted in a consultative role only. As with the departments, the reforms of the early 1980s lead, later in the decade, to a directly elected council with more powers and responsibility, including greater control of the local budget, and the transfer of authority over regional matters away from the régional préfet to the president of the Conseil Régional.

RESOURCES:

FRANCE IN THE 1980s - John Ardagh. Pub: Penguin. | THE NEW REGIME - Isser Woloch. Pub: W.W. Norton & Co. | INSTITUT NATIONAL DE LA STATISTIQUE: www.insee.fr/fr/

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Acknowledgements: images used on the left in the text area are mainly from morguefile.com, my thanks to biberta, missyredboots, rosevita, doctor_bob, cohdra, mconners, kairily, clarita, scott. m. liddel, and anyone else from morguefile whose image appears here. All the images in the right hand column on each page have been taken by me during my various travels in France and are copyright of buyahouseinfrance.info.