Inter-municipal cooperation in France: Incentives, instrumentality and empty shells

Karen West*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Chapter in Book/Published conference outputChapter


France has essentially three territorial layers of administration: the region, the department and the municipality (commune). There are two types of administration for each of these geographical entities: the deconcentrated State services, which implement central State policy and act under the supervision of the Prefect; and the decentralised, representative political institutions, or local authorities. All are elected by direct universal suffrage. The municipality has responsibility for all municipal services, land use and planning, and building permits. The department's responsibilities are in the areas of health and social services, construction and maintenance of public highways, and school bus transportation. The region's responsibilities are in the area of regional economic planning, industrial development and professional education. These functions have been modified somewhat with further decentralisation laws introduced in 2003. Debates about which of the elected territorial institutions is most suited to territorial administration and representation within the context of urbanisation, Europeanisation and globalisation have intensified in recent years. In broad terms, traditionalists, supported by the French Senate (which is dominated by mayors of rural municipalities and departments) support traditional institutions, i.e., the municipality and the department. Modernisers, conversely, favour a strengthened Region and the abolition of the department and direct universal suffrage for intermunicipal communities. It is within this context that the development of inter-municipal cooperation must be understood, paying particular attention to the question of why so many are reluctant to alter the centuries-old institutional status quo. Closer analysis of the institution of the municipality is, therefore, merited. The municipalities and the departments are the oldest territorial institutions, both created during the Revolution. Until the 1980s decentralisation laws, the municipalities enjoyed greater political autonomy than the departments. Formed during the revolution to cement local identity (Mabileau 1994), the municipalities have had what Blanc and Rémond (1994) describe as "a long march" towards decentralisation, slowly wresting power from the central State. Since the Revolution, they have exercised a dual function: State agent and representative of the municipality, although the balance between these two functions has altered over time. During the Consulate and the Empire, Napoleon increased the centralisation of the municipalities through the establishment of the departmental Prefect (Schmidt 1990). The Prefect became henceforth the departmental executive, who either chose or nominated the mayor and deputy mayor from within the municipal council depending on the size of the municipality (Schmidt 1990). The notion of tutelle, the power to control all decisions made by the municipalities, was established during this period. Since that time, the municipalities have slowly gained autonomy from the central State through (1) direct mayoral elections, (2) the right to create direct service organisations (régies municipales) (Blanc and Rémond 1994), and (3) the lifting of prefectoral tutelle in 1982 for all decisions made by the municipal council in favour of a much weaker a posteriori control of legality along with the transfer of other central State functions. In light of this hard-won power - which many would argue still falls far short of that desired (Schmidt 1990) - is an understandably strong reluctance to engage in any form of restructuring, much less cede political power to the new inter-municipal communities. The boundaries of municipalities were essentially those of the rural parishes and urban franchises under the ancien régime (Mabileau 1994). Given the strong significance of the municipality as the unit of government closest to the people, their number has not significantly responded to the two legislative initiatives in 1959 and 1971, which reduced them from 38,000 to 36,394. Following several de-mergers in the 1980s, they now number about 36,500. Despite their enormous variation in size - 3,000 municipalities have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants and five more than 300,000 (Ministère de l'intérieur 2005) - each municipality enjoys the same status and has the same structure, that is, a municipal council and mayor, both elected every five years. The idea that municipal power can only be legitimated by direct election is a principle established by the 1789 constitutional assembly (Blanc &Rémond 1994) and no doubt explains why the voting French public see the municipality as the cornerstone of French democracy.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationInter-Municipal Cooperation in Europe
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)1402053789, 9781402053788
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2007


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