As with the blog on régions, this is a part of a work in progress and will be added to from time to time.
The history of French départements is more interesting than that of the recently formed régions.
From Roman times, dozens of semi-independent fiefdoms and formerly independent countries were gradually, if somewhat haphazardly, incorporated into the French kingdom. Until the French Revolution, the kingdom was organised into provinces, which were roughly the equivalent of the counties of England, each having its own sets of feudal traditions, laws, and taxation systems. During the Revolution, in an attempt to centralise the administration of the whole country and to remove the influence of the French nobility, the entirety of the province system was abolished and replaced by the system of departments in use today. Almost all of the new departments were named after physical geographical features (rivers, mountains, or coasts) rather than after historical or cultural territories which could have their own loyalties; thus Paris was in the department of Seine, and Savoy became part of the department of Mont-Blanc. Boundaries were defined so as to erase cultural differences and build a more homogeneous nation. As a security measure, and to facilitate centralised control, they were also set so that every settlement in the country was within a day’s ride of the capital of a department.
Originally there were 83 departments, but the number rose and fell throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, particularly in line with France’s fluctuating fortunes in the Napoleonic and Franco-Prussian wars and the large-scale administrative reorganisations in Île-de-France (1968) and Corsica (1975).
Currently there are 96 departments in metropolitan France. Corsica was divided into two departments (Corse-du-Sud and Haute-Corse) in the 1975 reorganisation. However, as of 2019, these two no longer have the status of departmental ‘territorial collectivities’, as regional and departmental functions have been managed by a ‘single territorial collectivity’ since 2018. Despite this, they are still classed as administrative departments.
All of France’s overseas territories (French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Mayotte, and Réunion) are administratively classed as being both departments and regions, which gives a grand total of 101 departments.
Metropolitan French departments are assigned a two-digit number, the ‘official geographical code’ allocated by the Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques. Overseas departments have a three-digit number. The number is used, for example, in the postal code, and was until recently used for all vehicle registration plates.
Each department is administered by an elected body called a departmental council (conseil départemental) overseen by a president. The council is responsible for all the main departmental services: welfare, health, administration, and departmental employment. It also has responsibility for local regulations, manages public and private property, and votes on the local budget. Local services of the state administration are traditionally organised at departmental level, where the prefect represents the government; however, regions have gained importance since the 2000s, with some department-level services merged into region-level services.
In 2014, President François Hollande proposed to abolish departmental councils by 2020, which would have maintained the departments as administrative divisions, and to transfer their powers to other levels of governance. This reform project has since been abandoned.
A map of the current French departments.
A map of the First French Empire in 1812.
Poitiers is in the department of Vienne (departmental code 86). Established on March 4, 1790 during the French Revolution, Vienne is one of the original 83 departments. It was created from parts of the former provinces of Poitou, Touraine, and Berry, the latter being a part of the Duchy of Aquitaine until the fifteenth century. The department takes its name from the river Vienne. In terms of both population (about 437,000) and size (69,090 sq. kilometres) it is roughly middling in French departmental tables.
At present, I’ve not found not much of interest to say about Vienne as a department.
It is twinned with Berkshire in the UK, which somehow feels about right.
Édith Cresson, France’s first woman Prime Minister (1991–1992), was a deputy (MP) for the department.
One thing may be worth looking into further. During the Second World War, the demarcation line, dividing the occupied zone in the northern and western part of France and the ‘free zone’ under the Vichy government, went through the middle of Vienne, with the arrondissements of Poitiers and Châtellerault being in the former and Montmorillon in the latter.