Communes of France
The commune (French pronunciation: [kɔmyn]) is a level of administrative division in the French Republic. French communes are analogous to civil townships and incorporated municipalities in the United States and Canada, Gemeinden in Germany, comuni in Italy or municipio in Spain. The United Kingdom has no exact equivalent, as communes resemble districts in urban areas, but are closer to parishes in rural areas where UK districts are much larger. Communes are based on historical geographic communities or villages and are vested with significant powers to manage the populations and land of the geographic area covered. The communes are the fourth-level administrative divisions of France.
Communes vary widely in size and area, from large sprawling cities with millions of inhabitants like Paris, to small hamlets with only a handful of inhabitants. Communes typically are based on pre-existing villages and facilitate local governance. All communes have names, but not all named geographic areas or groups of people residing together are communes ("lieu dit" or "bourg"), the difference residing in the lack of administrative powers. Except for the municipal arrondissements of its largest cities, the communes are the lowest level of administrative division in France and are governed by elected officials including a mayor (maire) and a municipal council (conseil municipal). They have extensive autonomous powers to implement national policy.
A commune is the smallest and oldest administrative division in France. “Commune” in English has a historical association with socialist and collectivist political movements and philosophies. This association arises in part from the rising of the Paris Commune, 1871, which could have more felicitously been called, in English, “the rising of the City of Paris”. There is nothing intrinsically different between “town” in English and commune in French.
As of January 2021, there were 34,965 communes in France, 34,836 of them in metropolitan France and 129 of them overseas. This is a considerably higher total than that of any other European country, because French communes still largely reflect the division of France into villages or parishes at the time of the French Revolution.
The whole territory of the French Republic is divided into communes; even uninhabited mountains or rain forests are dependent on a commune for their administration. This is unlike some other countries, such as the United States, where unincorporated areas directly governed by a county or a higher authority can be found. There are only a few exceptions:
Furthermore, two regions without permanent habitation have no communes:
In metropolitan France, the average area of a commune in 2004 was 14.88 square kilometres (5.75 sq mi). The median area of metropolitan France's communes at the 1999 census was even smaller, at 10.73 square kilometres (4.14 sq mi). The median area is a better measure of the area of a typical French commune.
This median area is smaller than that of most European countries. In Italy, the median area of communes (comuni) is 22 km2 (8.5 sq mi); in Belgium it is 40 km2 (15 sq mi); in Spain it is 35 km2 (14 sq mi); and in Germany, the majority of Länder have communes (Gemeinden) with a median area above 15 km2 (5.8 sq mi). Switzerland and the Länder of Rhineland-Palatinate, Schleswig-Holstein, and Thuringia in Germany were the only places in Europe where the communes had a smaller median area than in France.
The communes of France's overseas départements such as Réunion and French Guiana are large by French standards. They usually group into the same commune several villages or towns, often with sizeable distances among them. In Réunion, demographic expansion and sprawling urbanization have resulted in the administrative splitting of some communes.
The median population of metropolitan France's communes at the 1999 census was 380 inhabitants. Again this is a very small number, and here France stands absolutely apart in Europe, with the lowest communes' median population of all the European countries (communes in Switzerland or Rhineland-Palatinate may have a smaller surface area, as mentioned above, but they are more populated). This small median population of French communes can be compared with Italy, where the median population of communes in 2001 was 2,343 inhabitants, Belgium (11,265 inhabitants), or even Spain (564 inhabitants).
The median population given here should not hide the fact that there are pronounced differences in size between French communes. As mentioned in the introduction, a commune can be a city of 2 million inhabitants such as Paris, a town of 10,000 inhabitants, or just a hamlet of 10 inhabitants. What the median population tells us is that the vast majority of the French communes only have a few hundred inhabitants; but there are also a small number of communes within much higher populations.
In metropolitan France 57 percent of the 36,683 communes have fewer than 500 inhabitants and, with 4,638,000 inhabitants, these smaller communes constitute just 7.7 percent of the total population. In other words, just 8 percent of the French population live in 57 percent of its communes, whilst 92 percent are concentrated in the remaining 43 percent.
Alsace, with an area of 8,280 km2 (3,200 sq mi), and now part of the Région Grand Est, used to be the smallest of the regions of metropolitan France, and still has no fewer than 904 communes. This high number is typical of metropolitan France but is atypical when compared with other European countries. It shows the distinctive nature of the French commune as a geo-political or administrative entity.
With its 904 communes, Alsace has three times as many municipalities as Sweden, which has a much larger territory covering 449,964 km2 (173,732 sq mi) and yet is divided into only 290 municipalities (kommuner). Alsace has more than double the total number of municipalities of the Netherlands which, in spite of having a population nine times larger and a land area four times larger than Alsace, is divided into just 390 municipalities (gemeenten).
Most of the communes in Alsace, along with those in other regions of France, have rejected the central government's calls for mergers and rationalization. By way of contrast, in the German states bordering Alsace, the geo-political and administrative areas have been subject to various re-organizations from the 1960s onward. In the state of Baden-Württemberg, the number of Gemeinden or communities was reduced from 3,378 in 1968 to 1,108 in September 2007. In comparison, the number of communes in Alsace was only reduced from 945 in 1971 (just before the Marcellin law aimed at encouraging French communes to merge with each other was passed, see Current debate section below) to 904 in January 2007. Consequently, the Alsace region—despite having a land area only one-fifth the size and a total population only one-sixth of that of its neighbor Baden-Württemberg—has almost as many municipalities. The small Alsace region has more than double the number of municipalities compared to the large and populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia (396 Gemeinden in September 2007).
Despite enormous differences in population, each of the communes of the French Republic possess a mayor (maire) and a municipal council (conseil municipal), which jointly manage the commune from the municipal hall (mairie), with exactly the same powers no matter the size of the commune. This uniformity of status is a legacy of the French Revolution, which wanted to do away with the local idiosyncrasies and tremendous differences of status that existed in the kingdom of France.
French law makes allowances for the vast differences in commune size in a number of areas of administrative law. The size of the municipal council, the method of electing the municipal council, the maximum allowable pay of the mayor and deputy mayors, and municipal campaign finance limits (among other features) all depend on the population echelon into which a particular commune falls.
Since the PLM Law of 1982, three French communes also have a special status in that they are further divided into municipal arrondissements: these are Paris, Marseille, and Lyon. The municipal arrondissement is the only administrative unit below the commune in the French Republic, but existing only in these three communes. These municipal arrondissements are not to be confused with the arrondissements that are subdivisions of French départements: French communes are considered legal entities, whereas municipal arrondissements, by contrast, have no official capacity and no budget of their own.
The rights and obligations of communes are governed by the Code général des collectivités territoriales (CGCT) which replaced the Code des communes (except for personnel matters) with the passage of the law of 21 February 1996 for legislation and decree number 2000-318 of 7 April 2000 for regulations.
From 1794 to 1977—except for a few months in 1848 and 1870-1871—Paris had no mayor and was thus directly controlled by the departmental prefect. This meant that Paris had less autonomy than the smallest village. Even after Paris regained the right to elect its own mayor in 1977, the central government retained control of the Paris police. In all other French communes, the municipal police are under the mayor's supervision.
French communes were created at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789–1790.
Before the revolution, France's lowest level of administrative division was the parish (paroisse), and there were up to 60,000 of them in the kingdom. A parish was essentially a church, the houses around it (known as the village), and the cultivated land around the village. France was the most populous country in Europe at this time, with a population of approximately 25 million inhabitants in the late 18th century (England in contrast had only 6 million inhabitants), which accounts for the large number of parishes. French kings often prided themselves on ruling over a "realm of 100,000 steeples".
Parishes lacked the municipal structures of post-Revolution communes. Usually, one contained only a building committee (conseil de fabrique), made up of villagers, which managed the buildings of the parish church, the churchyard, and the other numerous church estates and properties, and sometimes also provided help for the poor, or even administered parish hospitals or schools. Since the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 by Francis I, the priest in charge of the parish was also required to record baptisms, marriages, and burials. Except for these tasks, villages were left to handle other issues as they pleased. Typically, villagers would gather to decide over a special issue regarding the community, such as agricultural land usage, but there existed no permanent municipal body. In many places, the local feudal lord (seigneur) still had a major influence in the village's affairs, collecting taxes from tenant-villagers and ordering them to work the corvée, controlling which fields were to be used and when, and how much of the harvest should be given to him.
Additionally some cities had obtained charters during the Middle Ages, either from the king himself, or from local counts or dukes (such as the city of Toulouse chartered by the counts of Toulouse). These cities were made up of several parishes (up to ca. 50 parishes in the case of Paris), and they were usually enclosed by a defensive wall. They had been emancipated from the power of feudal lords in the 12th and 13th centuries, had municipal bodies which administered the city, and bore some resemblance with the communes that the French Revolution would establish except for two key points:
In the north, cities tended to be administered by échevins (from an old Germanic word meaning judge), while in the south, cities tended to be administered by consuls (in a clear reference to Roman antiquity), but Bordeaux was administered by jurats (etymologically meaning "sworn men") and Toulouse by capitouls ("men of the chapter"). Usually, there was no mayor in the modern sense; all the échevins or consuls were on equal footing, and rendered decisions collegially. However, for certain purposes there was one échevin or consul ranking above the others, a sort of mayor, although not with the same authority and executive powers as a modern mayor. This "mayor" was called provost of the merchants (prévôt des marchands) in Paris and Lyon; maire in Marseille, Bordeaux, Rouen, Orléans, Bayonne and many other cities and towns; mayeur in Lille; premier capitoul in Toulouse; viguier in Montpellier; premier consul in many towns of southern France; prêteur royal in Strasbourg; maître échevin in Metz; maire royal in Nancy; or prévôt in Valenciennes.
On 14 July 1789, at the end of the afternoon, following the storming of the Bastille, the provost of the merchants of Paris, Jacques de Flesselles, was shot by the crowd on the steps of Paris City Hall. Although in the Middle Ages the provosts of the merchants symbolized the independence of Paris and even had openly rebelled against King Charles V, their office had been suppressed by the king, then reinstated but with strict control from the king, and so they had ended up being viewed by the people as yet another representative of the king, no longer the embodiment of a free municipality.
Following that event, a "commune" of Paris was immediately set up to replace the old medieval chartered city of Paris, and a municipal guard was established to protect Paris against any attempt made by King Louis XVI to quell the ongoing revolution. Several other cities of France quickly followed suit, and communes arose everywhere, each with their municipal guard. On 14 December 1789, the National Assembly (Assemblée Nationale) passed a law creating the commune, designed to be the lowest level of administrative division in France, thus endorsing these independently created communes, but also creating communes of its own. In this area as in many others, the work of the National Assembly was, properly speaking, revolutionary: not content with transforming all the chartered cities and towns into communes, the National Assembly also decided to turn all the village parishes into full-status communes. The Revolutionaries were inspired by Cartesian ideas as well as by the philosophy of the Enlightenment. They wanted to do away with all the peculiarities of the past and establish a perfect society, in which all and everything should be equal and set up according to reason, rather than by tradition or conservatism.
Thus, they set out to establish administrative divisions that would be uniform across the country: the whole of France would be divided into départements, themselves divided into arrondissements, themselves divided into cantons, themselves divided into communes, no exceptions. All of these communes would have equal status, they would all have a mayor at their head, and a municipal council elected by the inhabitants of the commune. This was a real revolution for the thousands of villages that never had experienced organized municipal life before. A communal house had to be built in each of these villages, which would house the meetings of the municipal council as well as the administration of the commune. Some in the National Assembly were opposed to such a fragmentation of France into thousands of communes, but eventually Mirabeau and his ideas of one commune for each parish prevailed.
On 20 September 1792, the recording of births, marriages, and deaths also was withdrawn as a responsibility of the priests of the parishes and handed to the mayors. Civil marriages were established and started to be performed in the mairie with a ceremony not unlike the traditional one, with the mayor replacing the priest, and the name of the law replacing the name of God ("Au nom de la loi, je vous déclare unis par les liens du mariage." – "In the name of the law, I declare you united by the bonds of marriage."). Priests were forced to surrender their centuries-old baptism, marriage, and burial books, which were deposited in the mairies. These abrupt changes profoundly alienated devout Catholics, and France soon was plunged into the throes of civil war, with the fervently religious regions of western France at its center. It would take Napoleon I to re-establish peace in France, stabilize the new administrative system, and make it generally accepted by the population. Napoleon also abolished the election of the municipal councils, which now were chosen by the prefect, the local representative of the central government.
Today, French communes are still very much the same in their general principles as those that were established at the beginning of the Revolution. The biggest changes occurred in 1831, when the French Parliament re-established the principle of the election of municipal councils, and in 1837 when French communes were given legal "personality," being now considered legal entities with legal capacity. The Jacobin revolutionaries were afraid of independent local powers, which they saw as conservative and opposed to the revolution, and so they favored a powerful central state. Therefore, when they created the communes, they deprived them of any legal "personality" (as they did with the départements), with only the central state having legal "personality." By 1837 that situation was judged impractical, as mayors and municipal councils could not be parties in courts. The consequence of the change, however, was that tens of thousands of villages which had never had legal "personality" (contrary to the chartered cities) suddenly became legal entities for the first time in their history. This is still the case today.
During the revolution, approximately 41,000 communes were created, on territory corresponding to the limits of modern-day France (the 41,000 figure includes the communes of the departments of Savoie, Haute-Savoie and Alpes-Maritimes which were annexed in 1795, but does not include the departments of modern-day Belgium and Germany west of the Rhine, which were part of France between 1795 and 1815). This was fewer than the 60,000 parishes that existed before the revolution (in cities and towns, parishes were merged into one single commune; in the countryside, some very small parishes were merged with bigger ones), but 41,000 was still a considerable number, without any comparison in the world at the time, except in the empire of China (but there, only county level and above had any permanent administration).
Since then, tremendous changes have affected France, as they have the rest of Europe: the Industrial Revolution, two world wars, and the rural exodus have all depopulated the countryside and increased the size of cities. French administrative divisions, however, have remained extremely rigid and unchanged. Today about 90 percent of communes and departments are exactly the same as those designed at the time of the French Revolution more than 200 years ago, with the same limits. Countless rural communes that had hundreds of inhabitants at the time of the French Revolution now have only a hundred inhabitants or fewer. On the other hand, cities and towns have grown so much that their urbanized area is now extending far beyond the limits of their commune which were set at the time of the revolution. The most extreme example of this is Paris, where the urbanized area sprawls over 396 communes.
Paris in fact was one of the very few communes of France whose limits were extended to take into account the expansion of the urbanized area. The new, larger, commune of Paris was set up under the oversight of Emperor Napoléon III in 1859, but after 1859 the limits of Paris rigidified. Unlike most other European countries, which stringently merged their communes to better reflect modern-day densities of population (such as Germany and Italy around 1970), dramatically decreasing the number of communes in the process – the Gemeinden of West Germany were decreased from 24,400 to 8,400 in the space of a few years – France only carried out mergers at the margin, and those were mostly carried out during the 19th century. From 41,000 communes at the time of the French Revolution, the number decreased to 37,963 in 1921, to 36,569 in 2008 (in metropolitan France).
Thus, in Europe, only Switzerland has as high a density of communes as France, and even there an extensive merger movement has started in the last 10 years. To better grasp the staggering number of communes in France, two comparisons can be made: First, of the original 15 member states of the European Union there are approximately 75,000 communes; France alone, which comprises 16 percent of the population of the EU-15, had nearly half of its communes. Second, the United States, with a territory fourteen times larger than that of the French Republic, and nearly five times its population, had 35,937 incorporated municipalities and townships at the 2002 Census of Governments, fewer than that of the French Republic.
There have long been calls in France for a massive merger of communes, including by such distinguished voices as the president of the Cour des Comptes (the central auditing administrative body in France). So far, however, local conservatism has been strong, and no mandatory merging proposal ever has made it past committee in the French Parliament. In 1971 the Marcellin law offered support and money from the government to entice the communes to merge freely with each other, but the law had only a limited effect (only about 1,300 communes agreed to merge with others). Many rural communes with few residents struggle to maintain and manage basic services such as running water, garbage collection, or properly paved communal roads.
Mergers, however, are not easy to achieve. One problem is that mergers reduce the number of available elected positions, and thus are not popular with local politicians. Moreover, citizens from one village may be unwilling to have their local services run by an executive located in another village, whom they may consider unaware of or inattentive to their local needs.
The expression "intercommunality" (intercommunalité) denotes several forms of cooperation between communes. Such cooperation first made its appearance at the end of the 19th century in the form of a law on 22 March 1890, which provided for the establishment of single-purpose intercommunal associations. French lawmakers having long been aware of the inadequacy of the communal structure inherited from the French Revolution for dealing with a number of practical matters, the so-called Chevènement law of 12 July 1999 is the most recent and most thoroughgoing measure aimed at strengthening and simplifying this principle.
In recent years it has become increasingly common for communes to band together in intercommunal consortia for the provision of such services as refuse collection and water supply. Suburban communes often team up with the city at the core of their urban area to form a community charged with managing public transport or even administering the collection of local taxes.
The Chevènement law tidied up all these practices, abolishing some structures and creating new ones. In addition, it offered central government finance aimed at encouraging further communes to join together in intercommunal structures. Unlike the only partially successful statute enacted in 1966 and enabling urban communes to form urban communities, or the more marked failure of the Marcellin law of 1971, the Chevènement law met with a large measure of success, so that a majority of French communes are now involved in intercommunal structures.
In exchange for the creation of a community, the government allocates money to them based on their population, thus providing an incentive for communes to team up and form communities. Communities of communes are given the least money per inhabitant, whereas urban communities are given the most money per inhabitant, thus pushing communes to form more integrated communities where they have fewer powers, which they might otherwise have been loath to do if it were not for government money.
The Chevènement law has been extremely successful in the sense that a majority of French communes now have joined the new intercommunal structures. On 1 January 2007, there were 2,573 such communities in metropolitan France (including five syndicats d'agglomération nouvelle, a category currently being phased out), made up of 33,327 communes (91.1 percent of all the communes of metropolitan France), and 52.86 million inhabitants, i.e. 86.7 percent of the population of metropolitan France.
These impressive results however may hide a murkier reality. In rural areas, many communes have entered a community of communes only to benefit from government funds. Often the local syndicate has been turned officially into a community of communes, the new community of communes in fact managing only the services previously managed by the syndicate, contrary to the spirit of the law which has established the new intercommunal structures to carry out a much broader range of activities than that undertaken by the old syndicates. Some say that, should government money transfers be stopped, many of these communities of communes would revert to their former status of syndicate, or simply completely disappear in places where there were no syndicates prior to the law.
In urban areas, the new intercommunal structures are much more a reality, being created by local decision-makers out of genuine belief in the worth of working together. However, in many places local feuds have arisen, and it was not possible to set up an intercommunal structure for the whole of the urban area: some communes refusing to take part in it, or even creating their own structure. In some urban areas like Marseille there exist four distinct intercommunal structures! In many areas, rich communes have joined with other rich communes and have refused to let in poorer communes, for fear that their citizens would be overtaxed to the benefit of poorer suburbs.
Moreover, intercommunal structures in many urban areas are still new, and fragile: Tensions exist between communes; the city at the center of the urban area often is suspected of wishing to dominate the suburban communes; communes from opposing political sides also may be suspicious of each other.
Two famous examples of this are Toulouse and Paris. In Toulouse, on top of there being six intercommunal structures, the main community of Toulouse and its suburbs is only a community of agglomeration, although Toulouse is large enough to create an Urban Community according to the law. This is because the suburban communes refused an urban community for fear of losing too much power, and opted for a community of agglomeration, despite the fact that a community of agglomeration receives less government funds than an urban community. As for Paris, no intercommunal structure has emerged there, the suburbs of Paris fearing the concept of a "Greater Paris," and so disunity still is the rule in the metropolitan area, with the suburbs of Paris creating many different intercommunal structures all without the city.
One major often raised problem with intercommunality, is the fact that the intercommunal structures are not subject to directly election by the people, so it is the representatives of each individual commune that sit in the new structure. As a consequence, civil servants and bureaucrats are the ones setting up the agenda and implementing it, with the elected representatives of the communes only endorsing key decisions.
In areas where languages other than French are or were spoken, most place-names have been translated into a French spelling and pronunciation, such as Dunkerque (Duinkerke in Dutch), Toulouse (Tolosa in Occitan), Strasbourg (Straßburg in German), Perpignan (Perpinyà in Catalan), and many place names derived from Gaulish or Latin. However, many smaller communes have retained their native name. Other examples of retained names in the languages once spoken, or still spoken, on French territory:
INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Études Économiques) gives numerical indexing codes to various entities in France, notably the communes (which do not coincide with postcodes). The complete code has eight digits and three spaces within, but there is a popular simplified code with five digits and no space within:
Each commune has a municipal council (conseil municipal) compound of municipal councilors (conseillers municipaux). The municipal council is the legislative and deliberative organ of the commune. The municipal councilors are elected by the inhabitants of the commune for a 6-year term. Each commune is governed by a mayor (maire) elected for a 6-year term.