Processes of European integration and growing consumer scrutiny of public services have served to place the spotlight on the traditional French model of public/private interaction in the urban services domain. This article discusses recent debates within France of the institutionalised approach to local public/private partnership, and presents case study evidence from three urban agglomerations of a possible divergence from this approach. Drawing on the work of French academic, Dominique Lorrain, whose historical institutionalist accounts of the French model are perhaps the most comprehensive and best known, the article develops two hypotheses of institutional change, one from the historical institutionalist perspective of institutional stability and persistence, and the other from an explicitly sociological perspective, which emphasises the legitimating benefits of following appropriate rules of conduct. It argues that further studying the French model as an institution offers valuable empirical insight into processes of institutional change and persistence. © 2004 Taylor & Francis Ltd.