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Government, Local Government

Jacques Chirac, arrondissements, national government services, French monarchy, exercised control

Historically, government authority in France has been highly centralized. For centuries the French monarchy sought to centralize economic and military power to control rebellious members of the nobility in the provinces. The French Revolution of 1789 dismantled the monarchy but retained a highly centralized national administration, centered in Paris. Today this system remains largely in place. Reforms introduced in recent decades have transferred some powers to local authorities, but many of Franceís major policy decisions are still made in the nationís capital.

Under pressure from growing demands for increased regional and local control, the French government took some steps toward decentralization of authority in the 1960s and 1970s. One important step, in 1970, was the creation of 22 administrative regions. Then, in 1982, President Francois Mitterrand initiated a major effort to transfer real decision-making powers and budgetary authority to locally elected officials. Since then, regional and local governments have gradually gained control over a range of economic, social, and cultural matters.

There are three levels of government below the national level: the 22 regions, 96 departments, and more than 36,000 communes. The communes, which are the smallest units of local government, range in size from tiny villages to sections of large metropolitan areas. At the next level of government are the departments, many of which take their names from mountains, rivers, and other local geographical features. The departments are grouped into regions, the top level of subnational government. Each region, department, and commune has a directly elected council and executive.

The commune, an important component of French democracy, dates to pre-Revolutionary France. Each commune has a mayor and municipal council. The mayor, who is elected by the council, is responsible for preparing meetings of the council and for implementing its decisions. For certain purposes, including registration of births, marriages, and deaths, the mayor also represents the national government. The council determines the communeís budget and local taxes and makes decisions regarding municipal services. Individual communes often band together to provide certain municipal services cooperatively. Before 1982 communes were strictly supervised by representatives of the national government.

Departments vary in population from tens of thousands of people to more than 2 million. Each department is administered by a general council, which elects its own president. The council votes for a budget; provides departmental services, such as health and welfare; and drafts local regulations. A representative of the national government attends council meetings and is authorized to take steps to ensure public order, safety, and security. Before 1982, a prefect appointed by the national government exercised extensive authority within the department and played a key role in centralizing decision-making authority in the hands of the national government. Today the powers of the prefect are limited to ensuring that departmental policies do not conflict with national legislation.

The regions correspond roughly to Franceís historic provinces. The primary focus of regional government is economic and social planning. Compared to the other levels of subnational government, the regions deliver few services to residents and employ few public officials. Each region is administered by an elected regional council. The president of the council, elected by the council from among its members, serves as the regionís executive. A representative appointed by the national government speaks on behalf of the national government at council meetings and directs national government services in the region.

The city of Paris, the capital and seat of the most important national institutions, was formerly administered under a system designed to ensure tight central control. There was no mayor. Instead, a prefect of Paris and a prefect of the police, both appointed by the national government, exercised control. Under legislation passed in 1975, Paris became a department governed like any other, except that supervision of the police continued under a prefect appointed by the central government. Paris was permitted to have a municipal administration, similar to other French cities, with a mayor chosen by an elected council. The membership of the council, known as the Conseil de Paris, is determined by elections in 20 arrondissements (districts). In 1977 Jacques Chirac became the first mayor of Paris under the Fifth Republic.

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