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February 2011

 File n° 11 

The Territorial Organization of France







    Key points

    Since the revision of 2003, the Constitution states that the organization of the Republic is decentralized. This thus takes into account the process of decentralization which was initiated at the start of the 1980s.

    Accordingly, many powers were transferred to local municipalities, departments and regions but also to communities with a specific status and to overseas communities. At the same time, municipalities are increasingly coming together in public establishments for inter-municipal cooperation so as to pool their resources. As their powers have increased, so have their means regarding both financial and human resources.

    This double increase in powers and in resources means that territorial communities have become major public actors in local life and democracy.

See also file 4


    The constitutional revision of March 28, 2003, introduced into article 1 of the Constitution the notion that the organization of the Republic is decentralized. This new stage in the process of decentralization is part of the extension of several reforms which granted an increased freedom in administration to the different territorial levels. The Law of March 2, 1982, concerning the rights and freedoms of municipalities, departments and regions, represented a crucial step in this process. More recently inter-municipal cooperation has been stressed. The process of decentralization has also witnessed a growing deconcentration of state services in the regions and departments.


    Article 72 of the Constitution draws up the list of territorial communities which are: “the Communes (municipalities), the Departments, the Regions, the Special-Status communities and the Overseas Territorial communities to which article 74 applies”.

    1. – Municipalities, departments and regions

    In France, there are currently three levels of territorial communities.

    - The municipalities which make up the oldest and the closest to the citizens within the territorial organization of France. There are around 36,000 of them. They replaced the former parishes in 1789. The mayor, who is elected by the municipal council, is both the representative of the State in the municipality (he has powers concerning births, deaths and marriages as well as administrative policing) and the holder of local executive power (he prepares and implements the decisions of the municipal council).

    - The departments which were also set up in 1789. There are 100 of them of which 96 are in metropolitan France. At the beginning they were areas for state action (with the State being represented by the prefect) and they were only to become territorial communities in 1871. The Departmental Council, which is the departmental deliberative assembly, is renewed by half every three years. Every departmental councillor is elected in a “canton”.

    - The 22 regions which are a more recent creation. In the 1960s, they represented simple state entities, areas for regional action which were meant to provide more coherence to state policy at a higher level than the department. The Law of March 2, 1982, provided them with the status of territorial communities but it was only in 1986 that the first election for regional councils by universal suffrage was held.

    - These three levels represent both territorial communities and also areas for state action (their representatives are the mayor, the prefect and the regional prefect respectively). Therefore, the organization of deconcentrated state services is based on the same territorial divisions. Within the department there is a sub-division called “arrondissement” or district in which the State is represented by a sub-prefect.

    2. – Special-status communities and overseas communities

    Certain communities possess a specific status both in metropolitan France and overseas.

    In continental France, Paris, Lyon and Marseilles have a special status: these towns are divided into “arrondissements” which elect councils and mayors. In addition, Paris has a double status as both a municipality and a department and most police powers there are in the hands of the Prefect of Police, instead of the Mayor. In a similar way, the rules applicable in the Ile-de-France region are to some extent exemptions to ordinary law. For historical reasons, certain specific rules are applicable in Alsace and Moselle.

    Corsica has a specific institutional organization which grants it greater management autonomy. The Territorial Community of Corsica (CTC) has extended powers in certain areas, in particular that of the protection of cultural heritage.

    The four overseas departments which are Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyana and La Réunion, are subject, by virtue of article 73 of the Constitution, to the notion of legislative assimilation. They have the ordinary law powers of departments but they are also associated to international negotiations and have a greater power of proposition. Another particularity of these territories lies in the fact that four overseas regions are superimposed on the four overseas departments. In 2011, Mayotte will become the fifth overseas department.

    However, overseas communities and New Caledonia are subject to the principle of legislative specificity which is governed by article 74 of the Constitution: an Institutional act defines the status of each community and lists the laws which are applicable there. Local assemblies may draw up regulations which fall within the ambit of statute except for certain matters specified in article 73, paragraph 4 of the Constitution.

    3. – The development of intercommunality

    France is one of the countries in the world which has the largest number of municipalities. In order to avoid the risk of dispersion of local public policies an intercommunal level has developed. This level allows several municipalities (“communes”) to pool the management of certain public services and the implementation of certain policies. In order to do this, public entities for inter-communal cooperation (EPCI) were set up. These are public entities without being territorial communities. Their creation is the result of a wish expressed by the member municipalities and does not lead to the end of their status as such.

    The first generation of EPCIs is made up of inter-municipality groupings which today number around 13,000. There is a distinction drawn between inter-municipality groupings with a single aim (SIVU) which carry out only one joint action (for example refuse collection or road maintenance) and inter-municipality groupings with multiple aims (SIVOM) which may carry out several. These EPCIs do not have their own resources and, therefore, depend on the municipalities for their financing. In addition to this, there is also the case of “mixed groupings” which may bring together municipalities with other public entities.

    The second generation of EPCIs fulfils the wish to develop the various types of inter-communal cooperation. These entities in fact, have the possibility of collecting their own taxes: the Single Professional Tax (TPU). As of January 1, 2008, France numbered 14 of these urban communities (each of which brings together more than 500,000 inhabitants), 171 agglomeration communities (each of which brings together more than 50,000 inhabitants) and almost 2,400 municipality communities.


    Territorial communities have become major actors in local life. Their powers have in fact grown in number and this requires increased resources and a special civil service whose numbers have also risen.

    1. – The powers of the communities

    Territorial communities are dependent on a general clause concerning their powers subject to the principle of subsidiarity defined in article 72 of the Constitution: “Territorial communities may take decisions in all matters arising under powers that can best be exercised at their level”.

    However in practice, this general competence is carried out through certain powers which have been transferred to them by law. The legislator intended, from the beginning of the process of decentralization, to create homogeneous blocks of powers. Thus municipalities have powers in matters concerning town planning, housing, health, and social or cultural action. The departments have powers in four main fields: social and health action, spatial development and equipment, culture and heritage and economic development. Lastly, regional powers are essentially in the areas of economic development and regional planning. Nonetheless, certain powers are still often shared between the different levels of territorial communities: this is the case, for example, in education (primary education is a matter for municipalities, junior high schools are within the remit of departments whilst high schools fall within the scope of regions).

    Territorial communities are also subject to the principle of free administration, which is guaranteed to them by article 72 of the Constitution. This principle applies both to the relations the communities have with the State but also to the links between communities themselves. Thus, no territorial community may have authority over another although this does not prevent, since the constitutional revision of March 28, 2003, the appointment of a “leading” community, tasked with the action of all the communities in the implementation of one power or another.

    The principle of free administration has also put an end to the prior monitoring which prefects carried out on the instruments of territorial communities. Even if the latter must, generally speaking, transmit such instruments to the prefects, the administrative judge alone, if a referral is made to him by the prefect or by a natural person or legal entity concerned by the issue, may rescind them.

    2. – The resources of the communities

    Local communities are substantial investors. In 2008, their expenditure represented 215 billion euros, of which 90 billion came from municipal finances. This is the equivalent of about 20% of public expenditure, i.e. a little more than 11% of GDP. The amount of their resources is increasing given the transfer in powers which they enjoy.

    In order to carry out their missions, local communities have substantial revenue:

    - The main one is made up of local rates and taxes, amongst which are housing tax, land tax on constructed properties, land tax on non-constructed properties and professional tax(1) and which constitute direct local taxation. These resources made up, in 2007, about 94 billion euros;

    - Local communities also benefit from state aid which represents about 48 billion euros per annum. The most sizeable of these transfers is the Overall Operations Transfer (DGF).

    3. – The territorial civil service

    The territorial civil service was set up by the Law of January 16, 1984. Since then, its numbers have risen sharply to the extent that, in 2008, it numbered more than 1.6 million staff. The municipalities and the EPCIs employ most of these territorial civil servants (more than 1.4 million), followed by the departments (around 300,000) and the regions (with less than 20,000 staff). The Observatory of the Territorial Civil Service, has listed more than 250 different types of job, in eight branches, which correspond to the many powers which have been devolved to the territorial communities.

    () The 2010 Finance Bill envisages replacing this tax with two rates: a local activity contribution and a complementary contribution.