Division of Powers

France is a republican State and a parliamentary democracy, often qualified as semi-presidential. The Parliament is bicameral and is made up of the National Assembly (Assemblée nationale) and the Senate (Sénat). The latter indirectly represents the sub-national authorities’ interests to the extent that the Senate is indirectly elected by an electoral body comprising representatives of the Regions, the Departments and the Communes. A “rationalised parliamentary regime” (parlementarisme rationalisé) was established by the 1958 Constitution, in favour of the Government. However, a constitutional reform occurred in 2008 in order to rebalance the relationship between the Parliament and the Government, in favour of the former. France is characterised by a flexible separation of powers, i.e. the Government is politically responsible before the Parliament and can, in turn, dissolve the National Assembly.

France is a unitary State organised on a decentralised basis under the 1958 Constitution. France used to be a highly centralised country, with two tiers of local government: the Departments (Départements) and the Municipalities (Communes). Regions (Régions) came into existence in 1972 by means of law. More importantly, the so-called ‘Deferre Acts’ of 1982 and 1983 initiated the decentralisation process. The State’s supervisory powers over the local authorities’ activities were abolished. The Regions were turned into territorial authorities run by directly elected assemblies. The departmental and regional executive powers were also transferred to the presidents of their respective councils. Decentralisation was further developed with the 2003 constitutional reform by which the status of the Regions was constitutionally recognised and France became a unitary and decentralised state.

The reform enshrines the local authorities’ financial autonomy and authorises local referenda. In 2004, the Departments and Regions were attributed some new competences. Finally, an important reform was adopted in 2010, which will considerably change the territorial organisation of the country in the forthcoming years.

There are three sub-levels of governance in France: the Regions (Régions), the Departments (Départements) and the Municipalities (Communes). They are not bestowed with legislative powers. They exercise their functions by means of regulations for some fields and through the execution of their budget.

There are 27 French Regions, including the island of Corsica. The five overseas Regions have more powers and broader competences than mainland Regions. There are 102 Departments and 36,699 Municipalities. Paris, Lyon and Marseille are further divided into arrondissements.

The islands of Guadeloupe, Réunion and Mayotte are considered both as overseas Departments and Regions with their respective institutions. French Guiana and Martinique have the status of ‘unique collectivity’, thus uniting the departmental and regional institutions.

The overseas governments of French Polynesia, Saint-Barthélémy, Saint-Martin, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon (involved in Department’s representation), the Islands of Wallis and Futuna, as well as the French Southern and Antarctic Territories and Clipperton have a specific autonomous status. New-Caledonia is a sui generis collectivity; with its own institutions and citizenship.

Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Reunion and Saint Martin have the status of outermost regions at the EU level. Saint Barthélémy (since 1 January 2012), French Polynesia, the French Southern and Antarctic Territories, Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon, the islands of Wallis and Futuna and New Caledonia have the status of overseas countries and territories at the EU level. Mayotte has the status of overseas country and territory at the EU level but expressed the wish to access Department status in 2014.

The principle of freedom of administration by local authorities is explicitly enshrined in the Constitution, and is completed by the principle of financial autonomy of the local, intermediate and regional authorities. Local, intermediate and regional authorities (LRAs) have general competence for the exercise of their functions. As a result, shared competences are the rule. There is no hierarchy between regional, intermediate and local government.

Local authorities may carry out “local experiments”. These are legal authorisations provided to a local authority in order to implement public policies that normally do not belong to its legal attributions, on an experimental basis, and on a specific territory and period of time. If the experiment is positively evaluated, the delegation of this competence to all of the authorities at the same level is tested.

Besides the Constitution of 1958, the General Code on Local Authorities (Code général des collectivités territoriales) describes the competences attributed to the Regions, Departments and Municipalities. The distribution of competences among the different levels of governance is further described in numerous other laws.

In 2005, sub-national governments’ revenues were derived from taxation (own-source and shared), grants, fees, asset management and extraordinary revenue. The Municipalities’ revenue was composed of 52% of autonomous taxation, 31.5​% of grants and 16.5% of others. The Departments’ revenue was composed of about 51.6% of autonomous taxation, 11.6 % of shared tax, 28.2% of grants and 8.6% of others. The Regions’ revenue was composed of about 34.5% of autonomous taxation, 3.7 % of shared tax, 55.9% of grants and 6% of others.

The latest reform (2010) brings important changes to the existing territorial administration and division of powers. LRAs will be organised around two main centres: a regional/departmental axis and a municipal/inter-municipal axis.

Starting from 2014, the same elected representatives will belong to both the regional and general councils, in order to ensure coherence and complementarity between the regional and departmental levels. As of May 2012, there is no certainty that the reform will effectively enter into force since the new Government expressed the wish to present a different one.

Besides, the division of competences will change in 2015. The Departments and the Regions will be attributed some exclusive competences; shared competences will become the exception (sport, culture, tourism). In case a competence has not been attributed to any authority, the Departments and the Regions will be allowed to intervene. As regards the Municipalities, they will keep their general competence for local matters.

General division of powers​

Central level

The central Government is responsible for defining and implementing the nation’s policy. It has the civil service and the armed forces at its disposal for that purpose.

There is also a local civil service.

The central Government has exclusive responsibility in all matters relating to national sovereignty (defence, foreign affairs, justice and security).

The Parliament alone has the power to pass laws and the Government makes general regulations.

Regional Level

  • Regional transport, including regional transport plans, civil airports, non-autonomous harbours;
  • Education, in particular high schools;
  • Vocational training and apprenticeship;
  • Culture, including cultural heritage and monuments, museums, archives, artistic vocational training;
  • Regional planning;
  • Economic development;
  • Environment, and
  • Scientific development.

Intermediate Level

  • Departmental transport, including school transport, interurban transports, passenger transport, roads, commercial and fisheries ports, civil airports, non-autonomous harbours and railways;
  • Inclusion and social welfare (in charge of all of social aid);
  • Education, in particular ordinary secondary schools;
  • Vocational training, in the field of music, dance and drama;
  • Culture, including archives, museums, libraries, artistic training;
  • Public health, including sanitary protection, vaccination;
  • Planning, including aid programme, in cooperation with the Regions;
  • Economic development (complementary to that of the Region);
  • Environment, in particular protection waste and water plans, and
  • Rural development and agriculture aid.

Municipal Level

The mayor, as a representative of the State, has competence in the field of:

  • Registry;
  • Electoral issues;
  • Social welfare (complementary action to that of the Departments);
  • Education, including primary schools and pre-school classes;
  • Local roads;
  • Town planning, and
  • Protection of public order.

The Municipalities, as decentralised authorities, have competence in the field of:

  • Municipal transport, including school transport, yacht harbours, civil airports, non-autonomous harbours;
  • Culture, including teaching schools, archives, museums, academies, libraries;
  • Public health (vaccination);
  • Economic development (complementary to that of the Region);
  • Environment, specifically water and waste, and
  • Housing.