In France, the tradition of contracting out local public services has been predominantly one of partnership and co-operation rather than competition and antagonism. However, in recent years the traditional approach has come under intense criticism, something which has far-reaching implications for public-private governance. Adopting the socio-legal approach to the study of contract governance set out by Peter Vincent-Jones, this paper explores the discrepancy between descriptions of a traditional French approach to local public services governance, in which the bilateral values of trust and co-operation are emphasized, and a new discourse of local public services governance, which argues for detailed contract planning and close contract monitoring. It is argued that this discrepancy reveals the beginning of a shift in the governance of public service exchange relationships from relatively noncontractual and bilateral to relatively contractual and trilateral. The French case highlights the importance of regulatory and accountability frameworks to the manner in which contracting parties perceive exchange governance. © Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 2005.