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France: Départements

Last modified: 2018-06-23 by ivan sache
Keywords: departement |
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Status of the départements

The départements (départements) were established in 1790 to replace the monarchic administrative system, which was baed on the traditional provinces. The départements were to be administrated by a département Council (Conseil du Département) and a Board of Directors (Directoire) including the Préfet and one or more Sous-Préfets.
The General Councils (Conseils Généraux) were established in 1800; during the ephemeral Second Republic (1848), the General Councils were for the first time elected by universal suffrage.
The Constitutional Law of 10 April 1871 prescribed that each canton (subdivision of a département) should be represented by one Councillor (Conseiller Général), elected for 6 years. In practice, there is an election (élection cantonale) in half of the cantons every three years.
The Law of 2 March 1982 established administrative decentralization, given extended executive power at the département level to the General Council. The President of the General Council, elected by the General Councillors, is the head of the executive power. In case of equality of votes, the senior Councillor is elected for President.

Ivan Sache, 10 December 2001


The 2015 reform

The status of the départements remained unchanged until 2015. Article 1 of Law No. 403 of 17 May 2013 (text) changes the name of the département Assemblies as follows:

In all legislative provisions:
1. The words conseils généraux, conseiller général and conseillers généraux shall be replaced by the words conseils départementaux, conseiller départemental and conseillers départementaux, respectively;
2. The words conseil général, when applied to the body mentioned in Article L. 3121-1 of the General Code of Territorial Collectivities, shall be replaced by the words conseil départemental.

The Law further details all the Codes and Laws where the modification shall be implemented.

The number of cantons and the election process was also dramatically modified before the election that took place on 22 and 29 March 2015 (first and second round, respectively).
Based on the official population data published on 27 December 2013 by the INSEE (National Institute of Statistics and Economical Studies), the number of cantons was reduced from 4,035 to 2,054. The reduction was aimed at correcting the over-representation of rural areas. The reform stirred up controversy; the struggle against the reform was led by Bernadette Chirac - the wife of former President Jacques Chirac, who had been General Councillor of the suppressed canton of Corrèze from 1979 to 2015. More than 2,000 appeals were tabled at the State Council, to no avail but minor limit modifications. The limits of the new cantons are defined, for each département, by a Decree published in the French official gazette.
The ticket for the départemental election, hitherto composed of a candidate and his/her deputy for each canton, is now composed of two candidates, a man and a woman, and their two deputies, a man and a woman, for each canton, in order to establish gender parity in the départemental Councils. The départemental Councillors are elected for six years.
[Ministry of the Interior]

The assemblies formed after the 2015 election were renamed to départemental Councils. This change had to be implemented in all official paper and electronic documents, as well as on emblems.
Several département Councils, for the sake of money saving, marginally modified their emblem to reflect the new denomination rather than adopting a new emblem - as it was traditionally done from time to time or after a change in the political majority.

Ivan Sache, 12 July 2015


Origin and evolution of the départements

The creation of the départements was decided by the Assemblée nationale constituante. Jacques Thouret proposed a grid of 84 equal squares of 324 square leagues each, the whole design being centered on Paris.
On 15 January 1790, France was divided into 83 departements, each of them being divided in cantons and communes (municipalities).
The war that broke out on 20 April 1792 against the European powers yielded significant territorial conquests, which were incorporated to France as new départements.

Napoléon I subsequently increased the French territory: in 1810, France was constituted of 130 departements. After the fall of Napoléon and the crash of the First Empire, 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 the Comtat Venaissin, Montbéliard and Mulhouse.
After the Cent-Jours (Napoléon's come-back, March-June 1815) and the second Treaty of Paris (20 November 1815), France lost Savoy, Landau (today in Germany), and Philippeville and Marienbourg (today in Belgium), keeping only 86 departements.

In 1860, Savoy and the County of Nice were incorporated to France following local referendums, forming the départements of Savoie, Haute-Savoie and Alpes-Maritimes. The new département of Alpes-Maritimes was increased with the eastern part of the département of Var (arrondissement of Grasse); this resulted in the odd situation of the département of Var being named after a river that does not water it.

By the Treaty of Francfort (10 May 1871), France transferred to Germany the départements of Bas-Rhin and Haut-Rhin, except the town of Belfort, which formed a "special territory" eventually made the département of Territoire de Belfort in 1922; parts of the département of Meurthe (arrondissements of Château-Salins and Sarrebourg) and the département of Moselle, except the arrondissement of Briey, which was incorporated to the new département of Meurthe-et-Moselle, together with the parts of the former Meurthe remained French. After the return of Alsace and Moselle to France in 1919, the département of Meurthe-et-Moselle remained unchanged, the département of Meurthe was not refounded and the new département of Moselle incorporated the territories retroceded by Germany.
This was the last significant modification in the French départements, excepted a few border regularizations in the Alps in 1946.

Ivan Sache, 14 November 2009


Index of the départements pages

Number put before each département is its official code.

01 Ain
02 Aisne
03 Allier
04 Alpes-de-Haute-Provence
05 Hautes-Alpes
06 Alpes-Maritimes
07 Ardèche
08 Ardennes
09 Ariège
10 Aube
11 Aude
12 Aveyron
13 Bouches-du-Rhône
14 Calvados
15 Cantal
16 Charente
17 Charente-Maritime
18 Cher
19 Corrèze
2A Haute-Corse
2B Corse-du-Sud
21 Côte-d'Or
22 Côtes-d'Armor
23 Creuse
24 Dordogne
25 Doubs
26 Drôme
27 Eure
28 Eure-et-Loir
29 Finistère
30 Gard
31 Haute-Garonne
32 Gers
33 Gironde
34 Hérault
35 Ille-et-Vilaine
36 Indre
37 Indre-et-Loire
38 Isère
39 Jura
40 Landes
41 Loir-et-Cher
42 Loire
43 Haute-Loire
44 Loire-Atlantique
45 Loiret
46 Lot
47 Lot-et-Garonne
48 Lozère
49 Maine-et-Loire
50 Manche
51 Marne
52 Haute-Marne
53 Mayenne
54 Meurthe et Moselle
55 Meuse
56 Morbihan
57 Moselle
58 Nièvre
59 Nord
60 Oise
61 Orne
62 Pas-de-Calais
63 Puy-de-Dôme
64 Pyrénées-Atlantiques
65 Hautes-Pyrénées
66 Pyrénées-Orientales
67 Bas-Rhin
68 Haut-Rhin
69 Rhône
70 Haute-Saône
71 Saône-et-Loire
72 Sarthe
73 Savoie
74 Haute-Savoie
75 Paris
76 Seine-Maritime
77 Seine-et-Marne
78 Yvelines
79 Deux-Sèvres
80 Somme
81 Tarn
82 Tarn-et-Garonne
83 Var
84 Vaucluse
85 Vendée
86 Vienne
87 Haute-Vienne
88 Vosges
89 Yonne
90 Territoire de Belfort
91 Essonne
92 Hauts-de-Seine
93 Seine-Saint-Denis
94 Val-de-Marne
95 Val-d'Oise

Overseas départements
971 Guadeloupe
972 Martinique
973 French Guiana
974 Rénion
976 Mayotte

Ivan Sache, 14 November 2009


Coats of arms of départements

The coat of arms of the French départements are presented in Marques symboliques des départements français, a 85-page typescript released in 1950 by Jacques Meurgey de Turpigny (Curator at the Archives Nationales) and Robert Louis (Symbolist designer at the official services). The booklet was "intended to be offered to official services and should not be either sold or reproduced, even partially, without the authors' consent". It includes a map of France with the arms of the départements, in sepia tones and of low resolution; "a printed edition with large-scale, illuminated symbolic emblems" (color plate) was announced as "in preparation". The same authors published in 1952 a similar booklet representing the coat of arms of the traditional provinces.

The introducing text of the booklet says:

[...]
The division of France in 90 départements proved to be efficient from the administrative point of view, but lacks spirit. While folkloric organizations show their identity by using the coats of arms of the traditional provinces, the départements hitherto lacked any symbolic emblem highlighting their identity.
For several years, a few préfets decided to fill this blank; upon proposal by the Commission d'héraldique départementale and after scholars' works, they prescribed by Order the definition of the symbols of the département to be used. The coat of arms of the départements of Seine, Seine-et-Oise, Seine-et-Marne, Vendée, Vosges and Bas-Rhin were thus established.
The issue soon interested the Presidents of the General Councils. To avoid that particular initiatives drifted away from the general plan, the pushers of the project commissioned Charles Braibant [1889-1976], Director of the Archives de France [1948-1959], to chair the required studies.

It was decided that the symbolic emblems of the départements should be as simple as possible; they should be composed only of the arms of the province or a pays that once used arms, when possible. Only heraldic divisions recalling either the geographical location or making the arms canting could be added to the charges of the provincial coat of arms when several départements were formed from a single province. Elements recalling town arms should be excluded, except when a town uses the arms of a province or a feudal domain.
[...]

Ivan Sache, 7 April 2018