Departments of France

In the administrative divisions of France, the department (French: département, pronounced [depaʁtəmɑ̃]) is one of the three levels of government under the national level ("territorial collectivities"), between the administrative regions and the communes. Ninety-six departments are in metropolitan France, and five are overseas departments, which are also classified as overseas regions. Departments are further subdivided into 332 arrondissements,[1] and these are divided into cantons. The last two levels of government have no autonomy; they are the basis of local organisation of police, fire departments and, sometimes, administration of elections.

Departments of France
Départements français  (French)
  • Also known as:
  • Departamant gall  (Breton), Dèpartament francês  (Arpitan), Departament francés  (Occitan), Fratziako departamendu  (Basque), Departament francès  (Catalan)
Found inRegions
Number101 (as of 1 January 2021)
Possible types
PopulationsLargest: Nord, Hauts-de-France—2,608,346 (2019 census)
Smallest: Lozère, Occitanie—76,557 (2019 census)
AreasLargest: French Guiana—83,533.9 km2 (32,252.6 sq mi)
Smallest: Paris, Île-de-France—105.4 km2 (40.7 sq mi)

Each department is administered by an elected body called a departmental council (conseil départemental [sing.], conseils départementaux [plur.]). From 1800 to April 2015, these were called general councils (conseil général [sing.] conseils généraux [plur.]).[2] Each council has a president. Their main areas of responsibility include the management of a number of social and welfare allowances, of junior high school (collège) buildings and technical staff, and local roads and school and rural buses, and a contribution to municipal infrastructures.[3] Local services of the state administration are traditionally organised at departmental level, where the prefect represents the government; however, regions have gained importance since the 2000s, with some department-level services merged into region-level services.

The departments were created in 1790 as a rational replacement of Ancien Régime provinces with a view to strengthen national unity;[4] the title "department" is used to mean a part of a larger whole.[5] Almost all of them were named after physical geographical features (rivers, mountains, or coasts), rather than after historical or cultural territories, which could have their own loyalties. The division of France into departments was a project particularly identified with the French revolutionary leader the Abbé Sieyès,[6][7] although it had already been frequently discussed and written about by many politicians and thinkers. The earliest known suggestion of it is from 1665 in the writings of d'Argenson.[8] They have inspired similar divisions in many countries, some of them former French colonies. The 1822 territorial division of Spain (reverted due to the 1823 French intervention ending the trienio liberal) and the 1833 territorial division of Spain, which forms the basis of the present day Provinces of Spain with minor modifications is also based on the French model of departments of roughly equal size.[9]

Most French departments are assigned a two-digit number, the "Official Geographical Code", allocated by the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques (Insée).[10] Overseas departments have a three-digit number. The number is used, for example, in the postal code, and was until recently used for all vehicle registration plates. Residents commonly use the numbers to refer to their own department or a neighbouring one, for example, inhabitants of Loiret may refer to their department as "the 45". More distant departments are generally referred to by their names, as few people know the numbers of all the departments.

In 2014, President François Hollande proposed to abolish departmental councils by 2020, which would have maintained the departments as administrative divisions, and to transfer their powers to other levels of governance.[11] This reform project has since been scrapped.

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