The Jurisdictions & Roles of French Local Government

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  • 0:07 French Local Government
  • 0:44 Current Structure
  • 2:22 History
  • 3:58 Example
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson, we explore the regional and local governmental structures of France, their governing roles, and their relationships with the central government in Paris.

French Local Government

There is perhaps no category of government administration more diverse than local government. This is because 'local' can mean so many different things for different people and different regions. 'Local' for some might mean their metropolitan city of five million, while 'local' for others might mean their entire rural county of only 500. In the United States, local governments were born relatively organically in order to accommodate these diverse possibilities, but in France, local government is run a bit differently. In this lesson, we'll explore the changing role of local government in France and the forms it often takes.

Current Structure

In France, the central government is far more powerful than it is in the United States. The U.S., after all, is a federal institution; the central government in Washington has the final say in any legal matters it wishes to legislate upon, but a large amount of power is delegated to state and local authorities. Indeed, the U.S. Constitution has even devolved certain powers to state and local authorities that the federal government cannot touch.

In France, there are virtually no powers that local governments have that cannot be touched by the central government. Most of the regional and local governments' authorities consist of implementing the policy decisions and directives of the central government. Indeed, the breakdown of French government into regional and local authorities is largely for administrative purposes than it is for any real local policy making.

France proper is divided into 21 different regions, with Corsica also being considered its own region. Each region has a regional council directly elected by citizens in the region and a president who is elected by members of the council. Those regions are further divided into 96 local departments, which are governed by an elected regional council and its own council president.

The smallest level of local government is the commune of which there are roughly 36,000 across France. The commune is governed by a municipal or local council that is often popularly elected. Outside of the central government, it is the most important and most utilized government apparatus in France. These local councils are often charged with implementing the central government's policies throughout France, and for many Frenchmen and women, it's the only contact they may ever have with government officials.


For centuries in France, local government was merely an administrative instrument of the central government; for example, many of the councils and presidencies discussed above were appointed rather than popularly elected. However, this has changed in recent decades, and a significant amount of power has devolved from the central government to local authorities. In 1981, the Socialist Party of France, led by Francois Mitterand, won the presidential election and began its plans to decentralize power in France. This resulted in a series of laws and acts that devolved some power to local and regional authorities and increased the importance of regional government and the departmental governments.

The first of these measures in 1982 created the regional governments that had previously not existed. It also transferred the executive power in departments and municipalities from a government-appointed 'prefect' to the presidency of the regional council. Later, the Defferre laws organized the government of France's regions and departments into popularly elected councils and determined many of the rules and regulations by which these levels of government operate.

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