The commune is the lowest level of administrative division in the French Republic. The French word commune appeared in the 12th century, from Medieval Latin communia, meaning a small gathering of people sharing a common life, from Latin communis, things held in common.
French communes are roughly equivalent to incorporated municipalities/cities in the United States or Gemeinden in Germany. French communes have no exact equivalent in the United Kingdom, having a status somewhere in between that of English districts and civil parishes.
(1) Within the current limits of metropolitan France which existed between 1860 and 1871 and from 1919 to today.
(2) Within the current extent of overseas France which has remained unchanged since the independence of the New Hebrides in 1980.
It should also be noted that, unlike that of some other countries such as the United States, the whole of the territory of the French Republic, outside of some small overseas possessions, is divided into communes. On the territory of the French Republic there is no such thing as unincorporated areas directly governed by a county or a higher authority. Any piece of land in the French Republic is part of a commune, both in metropolitan France and in its overseas extensions (including uninhabited mountains or rain forests), with only the exceptions of:
In metropolitan France, the average area of a commune in 2004 is 14.88 km² (5.75 sq. miles, or 3,676 acres). The median area of metropolitan France's communes (as of 1999 census) is even smaller, at 10.73 km² (4.14 sq. miles, or 2,651 acres). The median area is a better measure of the area of a typical French commune.
This median area is smaller than in most of the European countries, such as Italy where the median area of communes (comuni) is 22 km² (8.5 sq. miles), Belgium where it is 40 km² (15.5 sq. miles), Spain where it is 35 km² (13.5 sq. miles), or Germany where the majority of Länder have communes (Gemeinden) with a median area above 15 km² (5.8 sq. miles).
This very small size of the French communes is due to the extremely high number of communes, mentioned above, in a medium-sized territory such as France. In 2000, 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 French overseas départements such as Réunion and French Guiana are large by French standards, larger than communes of metropolitan France. They usually group into the same commune several villages or towns, often with sizeable distances between 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 as of 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 where it was 11,265 inhabitants, or even Spain where it was 564 inhabitants.
The median population given here should not hide the fact that differences in size are extreme among French communes. As mentioned in the introduction, a commune can be a city of 2,000,000 inhabitants such as Paris, a town of 10,000 inhabitants, or just a village of 10 inhabitants. What the median population tells us is that the vast majority of the French communes only have a couple hundred inhabitants; but there also exists a small number of communes that are highly populated.
In metropolitan France, there are 20,982 communes with fewer than 500 inhabitants, which is 57.4% of the total number of communes. In these 20,982 communes there live only 4,638,000 inhabitants, or 7.7% of the total population of metropolitan France. In other words, only 7.7% of the French population live in 57.4% of the communes, while 92.3% of the population concentrate in just 42.6% of the French communes.
The Alsace region, with a land area of 8,280 km² (3,197 sq. miles), is the smallest region of metropolitan France, yet it is divided in no fewer than 904 communes (903 communes until 2006, but the communes of Bosselshausen and Kirrwiller, which had merged in 1974, demerged on January 1, 2007, thus bringing the total to 904). This high number of communes is not special when compared to other regions of metropolitan France, but when examined at the European level it reveals the peculiar situation of French communes.
With 904 communes, the small Alsace region has for example three times more municipalities than the kingdom of Sweden whose large territory covering 449,964 km² (173,732 sq. miles) is divided into only 290 municipalities (kommuner). Alsace has more than double the number of municipalities in the Netherlands which, despite a population 9 times larger and a land area 4 times larger than Alsace, is divided into only 443 municipalities (gemeenten).
Despite the Germanic heritage of Alsace, most of the Alsatian communes have aligned with the vast majority of communes in other French regions in their rejection of French laws pushing communes to merge with each other, whereas in most of the German states bordering Alsace the municipalities (Gemeinden) have been merged in various waves since the 1960s, thus massively reducing their numbers.
In the state of Baden-Württemberg, just across the Rhine River, the number of Gemeinden was reduced from 3,378 in 1968 to 1,108 as of Sept. 2007. In comparison, the number of communes in Alsace was only reduced from 945 in 1971 (just before the Marcellin law enticing French communes to merge with each other was passed, see Current debate section below) to 904 as of Jan. 2007. As a result, the Alsace region, despite a land area only a fifth the size of Baden-Württemberg and a total population only a sixth the population of Baden-Württemberg, has almost as many municipalities as this German state. The small Alsace region has more than double the number of municipalities in the very large and very populated state of North Rhine-Westphalia (396 Gemeinden as of Sept. 2007) where municipalities mergers were carried out more extensively than in Baden-Württemberg, and nearly as many municipalities as in the also very large state of Lower Saxony (1,022 Gemeinden as of Sept. 2007).
Despite enormous differences in population, each of the communes of the French Republic possesses a mayor (maire) and a municipal council (conseil municipal) which manage the commune from the mairie (city hall), with exactly the same powers no matter the size of the commune (with the city of Paris as the only exception, where the city police are in the hands of the central state, not in the hands of the mayor of Paris). This uniformity of status is a clear 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.
The size of a commune still matters, however, in two domains: French law determines the size of the municipal council according to the population of the commune; and the size of the population determines which voting process is used for the election of the municipal council.
Since the PML 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. Municipal arrondissement is the only administrative unit below the commune in the French Republic, but it exists only in these three communes. These municipal arrondissements are not to be confused with the arrondissements that are subdivisions of French départements.
French communes have had legal "personality" since 1837: they are considered legal entities, and they have legal capacity. Municipal arrondissements have no legal personality, 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.
French communes were created at the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789-1790.
Before the French Revolution, there existed nothing such as the communes we know today. The lowest level of administrative division was the parish (paroisse), and there were up to 60,000 of them in the Kingdom of France. A parish was essentially a church, the houses around it (known as the village), and the agricultural land around the village. It should be remembered that France was the most populous country of Europe until the 19th century, more so even than Russia, with a population of approximately 25 million inhabitants before the Industrial Revolution (England had only 6 million inhabitants before the Industrial Revolution) -- this accounts for the stunningly-high number of parishes in the Kingdom of France. French Kings often prided themselves on ruling over a "realm of 100,000 steeples".
However these parishes lacked the municipal structures of post-Revolution communes. Usually there was only a building committee (conseil de fabrique where 'fabrique' is related to the English word 'fabricate'), 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. The priest in charge of the parish was also required to record baptisms, marriages, and burials, since the Ordinance of Villers-Cotterêts of 1539 by Francis the First. 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) in his castle was still intervening in the village’s affairs, still collecting taxes from tenant-villagers and ordering them to work the corvée, still determining which agricultural land was to be used and when, and how much of the harvest should be given to him.
On the other hand, there existed chartered cities that had received 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 several hundreds in the case of Paris), and they were usually enclosed by a defensive wall. These cities had been emancipated from the power of feudal lords in the 12th and 13th centuries, they had municipal bodies which administered the city, and bore quite a resemblance with the communes that the French Revolution would establish except for two key points: 1- these municipal bodies were not democratic, they were usually in the hands of some rich bourgeois families upon whom, over time, nobility had been conferred, so they can be better labeled as oligarchies rather than municipal democracies; 2- there was no uniform status for these chartered cities, each one having its own status and specific organization.
In the north of France, cities tended to be administered by échevins (from an old Germanic word meaning judge), while in the south of France 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 the same footing, and rendered decisions in collegiality; but for certain purposes there was one échevin or consul ranking above the others, being 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 July 14, 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 local representative of the king, and no longer as 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 December 14, 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 (les Lumières). 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 all 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 (maire) at their head, and a municipal council (conseil municipal) elected by the inhabitants of the commune. This was a real revolution for the tens of thousands of villages that never had experienced organized municipal life before. A communal house (mairie) 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 tens of 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 from the priests of the parishes and became the responsibility of the mayors. Civil marriages were established and started to be performed in the mairie with a ceremony not unlike the traditional church ceremony, 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, in their general principles, French communes are still very much the same as those that were established at the beginning of the French Revolution. The biggest changes occurred in 1831, when the French Parliament re-established the principle of the election of the 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 French Revolution approximately 41,000 communes were created (), on a 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 less 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 very big 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% 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. As a consequence, countless rural communes that had hundreds of inhabitants at the time of the French Revolution now have only a hundred inhabitants or less. 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 became rigid. 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, and 36,569 in 2008 (in metropolitan France).
France is by far the country with the largest number of communes in Europe. For instance, reunited Germany (which has one-third more inhabitants than France) has only 12,240 communes (Gemeinden, as of March 31, 2008, down from ca. 46,300 communes in 1900 within the post-1990 borders of Germany), and Italy (almost as many inhabitants as France) has only 8,101 communes (comuni, as of 2001 Italian census). 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 ten years. To better grasp the staggering number of communes in France, two comparisons can be made: 1- the European Union (of 15 members, before May 2004) is made up of approximately 75,000 communes, and metropolitan France alone accounts for 35,568 of these, which means 47.5% of the communes of the European Union are in metropolitan France alone (France represents 16% of the total population of the European Union of 15 members). 2- the United States, with a territory 14 times larger than that of the French Republic, and nearly five times its population, had 35,937 incorporated municipalities and townships as of the 2002 Census of Governments, fewer than that the 36,782 communes of the French Republic.
For more than 30 years, there have been calls in France for a massive merger of communes, including 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 very 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 disappear and merge with others).
So, those in favor of mergers complain that French cities have a ridiculously light weight compared to their European counterparts, because their limits still are those set more than 200 years ago. For instance, the city of Lyon is a geographically small commune with only 465,300 inhabitants living within its administrative borders, which ranks below many other European cities, whereas in fact the metropolitan area of Lyon has 1.7 million inhabitants and ranks as one of the major metropolises of Europe, on a par with a metropolitan area such as Munich. As a matter of fact, the population and economy of the Munich metropolitan area is very comparable to that of Lyon, but the population of the city (Gemeinde) of Munich is about 1,320,000 inhabitants, nearly three times that of the commune of Lyon, reflecting the much larger municipal territory of Munich (310 km²/120 sq. miles), 6.5 times larger than the municipal territory of Lyon (48 km²/18.5 sq. miles).
Mayors of French cities often complain that their significance is undervalued when they travel outside of France, due to the fact that they preside over only a small territory at the center of wider metropolitan areas. A good example of this phenomenon is Paris: although the metropolitan area of Paris is one of the very few in the world to have more than 10 million inhabitants, the population of the city of Paris itself is only 2,145,000 inhabitants, less than the population of the city of Rome (2,550,000 inhabitants), whose metropolitan area of 3.5 million inhabitants is dwarfed by that of the metropolitan area of Paris.
At the other end of the scale, there exist some countryside communes which rural exodus has left with few inhabitants, and which struggle to maintain and manage such basic services as running water, garbage collection, or properly-paved communal roads.
Mergers, however, are not easy to achieve. A first obvious issue is that they reduce the number of available elected positions, and thus are not popular with local politicians. A more serious issue is that citizens from one village may be unwilling to have their local services run by an executive located in another village, who may be unaware or inattentive to their local needs.
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.
There are two types of intercommunal structures:
These three structures are given varying levels of fiscal power, with the Community of Agglomeration and the Urban Community having most fiscal power, levying the local tax on corporations (taxe professionnelle) in their own name instead of those of the communes, and with the same level of taxation across the communes of the community. The communities must also manage some services previously performed by the communes, such as garbage collection or transport, like the old syndicates, but the law also makes it mandatory for the communities to manage other areas such as economic planning and development, housing projects, or environment protection. Communities of Communes are required to manage the least number of areas, leaving the communes more autonomous, while the Urban Communities are required to manage most matters, leaving the communes inside them with less autonomous power.
In exchange for the creation of a community, the government allocates money to them based on their population, thus providing an incentive for the communes to team up and form communities. Communities of Communes are given the least amount of money per inhabitant, whereas Urban Communities are given the most amount of money per inhabitant, thus pushing the communes to form more integrated communities where they have less powers, which they would 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: quite a feat in such a conservative country as France. As of January 1, 2007, there were 2,573 such communities in metropolitan France (including 5 syndicats d'agglomération nouvelle, a category currently being phased out), made up of 33,327 communes (91.1% of all the communes of metropolitan France), and 52.86 million inhabitants, i.e. 86.7 % of the population of metropolitan France.
However these impressive results 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 in the urban area. 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, so that 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 of the urban area. 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 opposite 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 many powers, 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 Paris metropolitan area, with the suburbs of Paris creating many different intercommunal structures but all without the city of Paris.
One major problem with intercommunality, often raised, is the fact that the intercommunal structures do not have representatives directly elected 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. At the local level, this situation is quite like the one existing in Brussels, where power shared by many independent European states has resulted in that power being exercised by a bureaucracy not elected by citizens.
The first five years of the 21st century have seen great changes at the communal level in France, but the situation still is unsettled. The new intercommunal structures, designed to solve the problem of a country with too many small communes, have met with clear success, but their powers -- as well as their relationship with the communes below them and the départements above them -- still need to be defined in practice.
It is unclear yet where the trend is going. Will the intercommunal structures have representatives directly elected by the citizens in the future, as the Mauroy Report proposed in 2000? But then, wouldn't this leave the communes as hollow administrative units? Already, a few well-known mayors of large French cities (communes) have abandoned their mayoral seats to become presidents of the Urban Communities, as in the case of the Urban Community of Lille Métropole. Or will these intercommunal structures break up, in the end, after the state stops transferring money? Or perhaps, as some believe, the Chevènement law was just a first step toward a massive merger of communes, an attempt to have the communes work together and see the advantages of it, before they are eventually merged. In any case, the debate is sure to rebound in the next few years.
The most elevated commune of the French Republic (and of Europe) is Saint-Véran (267 inhabitants), in the French Alps: the altitude of the village at the center of the commune is between 1,990 meters (6,529 ft) and 2,040 meters (6,693 ft) above sea level.
Names of French communes are normally in French. In areas where other languages than French were spoken, the names have been adapted to French spelling and pronunciation, such as Toulouse (formerly Tolosa in Occitan), Strasbourg (formerly Straßburg in Alemannic), or Perpignan (formerly Perpinyà in Catalan). However, many smaller communes have retained their native name. Here are examples of retained names in the languages once spoken, or still spoken, on the territory of the French Republic:
INSEE codes: INSEE gives numerical indexing codes to various entities in France, notably the communes (they do not coincide with postcodes). The 'complete' code has 8 digits and 3 spaces within, but there is a popular 'simplified' code with 5 digits and no space within: