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France: Departments

Last modified: 2002-11-02 by ivan sache
Keywords: france | department | departement | conseil general | general council |
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Status of the departments

  • In 1790, the departments (départements) were created to replace the monarchic administrative system (which included the traditional provinces). The departments were then administrated by a Department Council (Conseil du Département) and a Board of Directors (Directoire) including the Préfet and one or more Sous-Préfets.
  • In 1800, the General Councils (Conseils Généraux) were created.
  • In 1848, during the ephemeral Second Republic, the General Councils were for the first time elected by universal suffrage.
  • In 1871, the fundamental law of 10 April stated that each canton (subdivision of department) should be represented by one Councillor (Conseiller Général), elected for 6 years. In practice, there is an election in half of the cantons every three years, during the élections cantonales.
  • In 1982, the law of 2 March established administrative decentralization and gave the departmental executive power to the General Council. After each election, the General Councillors gather and elect the President of the General Council, who is the chief of the executive power. In case of equality of votes, the senior Councillor is elected for President.

Source: Website of the General Council of Aisne

Ivan Sache, 10 December 2001

Origin and evolution of the departments

The creation of the departements was decided by the Assemblée nationale constituante according to Jacques Thouret's proposal: 84 equal squares of 324 square lieues each, the whole design being centered on Paris.
On 15 January 1790, France was divided in 83 departements, each of them being divided in cantons and communes.
The war which had started on 20 April 1792 against the European princes yielded significant territorial conquests, which were also incorporated to France as new departments:

"Sister-republics" were established in the Netherlands (Batavian Republic) and Italy.

Napoléon I later enlarged the French territory. In 1810, France was constituted of 130 departements. After the fall of Napoléon, the French Empire crashed down. The first treaty of Paris (30 May 1814) restored the former borders of France, which kept one third of Savoy (Annecy and Chambéry), Avignon and Comtat Venaissin, Montbéliard and Mulhouse.

After the Cent-Jours (Napoléon's come-back), the second treaty of Paris (20 November 1815), France lost Savoy, and, on the border, Landau and the Saar cities, Philippeville and Marienbourg. Only 86 departements remained.

Due to rural exodus and the First World War, the population in several parts of France dramatically decreased, and several sous-préfectures were suppressed and 'downgraded' to the status of chef-lieu de canton. This was the case for instance of Puget-Théniers (Alpes-Maritimes), Hazebrouck (Nord) or Semur-en-Auxois (Côte d'Or). Such 'downgradings' were very unpopular because the presence of the state administration had generated a significant economical activity, especially in the most isolated areas. Due to the electoral system which was/is mainly on local basis, politicians tried to maintain a sous-préfecture in their own circonscription (the same was true with the railway lines, ironically nicknamed 'electoral lines') and asked for compensation for the 'downgrading'.
The last change of importance was the exchange of status between Toulon and Draguignan in the departement of Var in 1974. In 1794, Bonaparte had prefered the small, isolated in the hinterland city of Draguignan to the rich maritime city of Toulon, which had actively supported the anti-Revolution forces and had welcomed the Brits (Napuoleone Buonaparte, as an artillery officer, started his career during the siege of Toulon). The logical transfer of the prefecture to Toulon caused severe troubles in 1974 and the prefecture of Draguigan was even trashed by demonstrators.

Ivan Sache, 27 November 2000.

Index of the departments pages

Number put before each department is its official code.

Each page includes links to the Region in which the department is incorporated and the traditional province(s) whose territory(ies) overlapped the current department territory.

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