A history of the French departments

Posted by Josh on 10th Apr 2024 in the blog in the category

France départementale svg 1
Image by Nilstilar, distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International licence

Ask a French person where they live, and you may sometimes receive a somewhat cryptic answer: 91, say, or 56, 12, 42 — and so on. These numbers are in fact shorthand for the numerous departments which make up Metropolitan France and the overseas territories, of which there are 101. And if the person you’re speaking to refers to the department's number rather than the name, it’s likely because they presume you possess some familiarity with France’s administrative layout — so take it as a compliment!

Of course, most French people will typically respond to the question ‘Where do you live?’ by mentioning the nearest city, or their region. In terms of size, the department usually lies somewhere between the two, but its significance stems from the fact that each department is a single administrative unit, with its own elected council responsible for local governance, although they are each subordinate to the national government and national laws.

Why were the departments created?

While the French regions date back, in some cases, thousands of years — long before they became legal units — the departments are a relatively recent addition to the French administrative topography. Like so much of the political apparatus of the French republic, they were a product of the Revolution, created in 1790 to give each part of the country roughly equal weight in government affairs. This is why, when looking at a map of France, you’ll be struck by how every department is almost the same size, in contrast to the provinces, which were hitherto the principal units of devolved government in the Ancien Régime.

This artificial redistribution of power did not go without criticism. Edmund Burke, the Anglo-Irish critic of the French Revolution, had this to say:

'No man ever was attached by a sense of pride, partiality, or real affection, to a description of square measurement. He will never glory in belonging to the Checquer, No. 71, or to any other badge-ticket…Such divisions of our country as have been formed by habit, and not by a sudden jerk of authority, were so many little images of our country in which the heart found something which it could fill.'

The erasure of local loyalties was, however, precisely the point. The new borders cut through the existing system and made it easier for citizens to think of themselves as ‘French’, rather than 'Breton' or 'Picard'. Each department answered to a newly fortified national government, allowing for the emergence of a more unified, consolidated nation state.

To begin with, there were 83 departments in France. But that number has grown over the years. Annexations of neighbouring lands following the Napoloeonic Wars, as well as the addition of French overseas territories following the creation of the French Union in 1946, has brought the number up to 101 — though it now means that some departments are considerably larger than others. Guyane, for example, is 800 times larger than the department of Paris.

Each department has a number, assigned alphabetically (01 is Ain, while 95 is Val-d'Oise. The overseas territories, namely Guadeloupe, Martinique, Guyane, Réunion and Mayotte are 971, 972, 973, 974 and 975 respectively).

How does the administration work?

Departments are semi-independent in regards to their administration, although they ultimately defer to the national government, and occasionally work with one another through intercommunal councils when a shared goal is pursued. When the Loire river floods, for example, the different departments in the Loire Valley will generally work together on a flood management strategy.

The seat of government in each department is known as a prefecture, and is generally the largest town or city in each department. For instance, the prefecture for Bouches-du-Rhône is Marseilles, while the prefecture for Alpes-Maritimes is Nice. The size of the departments — on average around 5,000 square kilometers — was designed so that any citizen in the department could reach the prefecture within a day's ride.

Chief decisions and policies are made by the council, and the councilors are elected by the citizens in each department. Elections are generally held every six years, in contrast to the five year gaps between national elections.

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