Administrative divisions in France

before and after the Revolution

I regularly receive questions about administrative subdivisions in France. (The latest came from Donald Bringol, from Marksville.) For the benefit of all who might be interested, here is a bit of explanation.

A brief history

The current principles of French administration date back to the Revolution of 1789. Before that ("l'Ancien Régime", as we call it), there was practically NO organization. Power originated from brute force, and the rest followed suit. Most of the land belonged to the aristocracy (the so-called nobility) and to abbeys. About 99.9% of the population was dissatisfied with this state of affairs. As a consequence of the Revolution, some aristocrats were shortened and the country was [re]organized.

With the definite intent of puzzling future generations of genealogists, most of the old names of administrative subdivisions (duchés, comtés, baronnies, évêchés, ...) were then abolished. They were replaced by names untainted by the aristocracy, i.e. "eternal" names of rivers, mountains, coasts, straits, ... hence the names of the départements which were created then. It is not possible to establish straightforward conversion tables between old and new names but it is an amusing exercise for some people. France loves its own history...

Current subdivisions of France

There are 6 administrative levels; at each level, an entity is normally divided into several entities of the next lower level:

  1. la République
  2. les Régions (22)
  3. les départements (96)
  4. les arrondissements (326)
  5. les cantons (about 3800)
  6. les communes [i.e. towns and cities] (about 36,400)

There is NO difference in the law wherever one lives. There is nothing comparable to US "state laws" or "dry counties". All levels except 4 & 5 have an elected body. In 1997, France voted at level 1 [l'Assemblée Nationale]; in 1998, at levels 2 & 3. At level 6, the conseils municipaux (town councils) were renewed in 1996. The day-to-day administration of the commune is done by the maire (mayor), a key actor of municipal life, especially in small towns. It is often most interesting and useful to drink a beer, a glass of wine or pastis (depending on the latitude) with the maire.

The départements are still the cornerstone of the system. They are all numbered between 01 and 96 (originally in alphabetic order). Those who travelled to France have seen them on license plates. They are also the first two digits of the postal codes. The communes, among many other things, record all births, marriages and deaths that occur on their territory. Often they possess some of the records of the former paroisses (parishes) which used to do this job before the Revolution. There was a dramatic improvement in the quality of the records when the job was transferred from priests to, most often, schoolmasters; this is unfortunately of little help for families who left France before the Revolution...

Except for a few "historical" Régions (e.g. Normandy, Brittany), there are no official flags for all these administrative entities. Only the bleu-blanc-rouge applies. Some people, mostly in North America, still associate the fleur-de-lys with France. This royal symbol was also abolished with the Revolution. It is perfectly legitimate to use it in a proper historical context. In modern France however, using it is considered as tacky as waving the Union Jack on the 4th of July.

An example

One of the French Régions is la Lorraine. It is located in the NE (i.e. upper right) corner, near Luxembourg and Germany. (Hence a "complicated" history...) It has 4 départements:

The département de la Moselle is further divided into 9 arrondissements, named after their "capital" city or town; examples are Metz (also "capital" and largest city of the département), Thionville, Sarreguemines or Sarrebourg. The arrondissements are further divided into cantons (51 in total for this département). The arrondissement of Sarrebourg, for instance, is divided into 5 cantons: Sarrebourg itself, Phalsbourg, Fénétrange, Lorquin and Réchicourt-le-Château. In each canton there are about a dozen communes.

Some communes are really small, sometimes less than 100 people! In an entirely different Région, Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur, we have been lucky enough to be accepted in such a small town, Bevons, where elections are "decided" around a family dinner table: the name of this family is Plauche; Bevons should really be known as "Plaucheville" (not to be confused with Plauchéville...)

Map of France before the Revolution

A detailed map of France was drawn (scale 1:86,400) in the 18th century. Known as Carte de Cassini, it is available from the Institut Géographique National.

There are two different editions. One is expensive, the other very expensive. Unless you are Rockefelleaux, you might be better off trying to locate it in your local university library.

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