Where is Poitiers: The Commune

As with the blog on régions, this is a part of a work in progress and will be added to from time to time.

Below regions and departments, the next level of administrative division in France is the communes, and they are probably the most difficult to get one’s head around. The UK has no exact equivalent, as communes resemble metropolitan districts in urban areas but are closer to parishes in those rural areas, whereas UK districts are much larger. Communes vary hugely in size and area, from large sprawling cities with millions of inhabitants, such as Paris, to small hamlets with only a handful of inhabitants. Communes are typically based on pre-existing villages and facilitate local governance. Except for the municipal arrondissements of the largest cities, the communes are the lowest level of administrative division in France and are governed by elected officials (the mayor and a municipal council) with extensive autonomous powers to implement national policy.

As of January 2015, there were 36,681 communes in France, 36,552 of them in metropolitan France and 129 of them overseas. The whole territory of the French Republic is divided into communes; even uninhabited mountains or rainforests are dependent on a commune for their administration.

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 bracket into which a particular commune falls.

In 2015, 57 per cent of the 36,681 communes had fewer than 500 inhabitants and, with 4,638,000 inhabitants, these smaller communes constituted just 7.7 per cent of the total population. In other words, just 8 per cent of the French population live in 57 per cent of its communes, whilst 92 per cent are concentrated in the remaining 43 per cent.

There have long been calls in France for a massive merger of communes. Many rural communes with few residents struggle to maintain and manage basic services such as running water, garbage collection, or properly paved communal roads. The last attempt at change was in the general reorganisation proposed by President Hollande in 2014, but this got nowhere. 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). Mergers are not easy to achieve. One problem is that they 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.

My gut feeling, however, is that there will be continued pressure from central government to change things, and various structural changes that have taken place in recent year may facilitate this. Alongside the high-level reorganisation of departments into regions, there are now various types of intercommunal entities (ranging in size of population from the smallest, communauté de communes,via communauté d’agglomération,to the largest, communauté urbaine).Grand Poitiers is a communauté urbaine, made up of 40 communities, with its headquarters in the Mairie of Poitiers. Its population is around 191,0004, of whom around 90,000 are in the commune of Poitiers itself. The communauté urbaine assumes responsibility in a large number of areas that were once controlled by its member municipalities. These include certain responsibilities in economic planning and development, housing, service management of sanitation and water, and environmental planning.

There is nothing inherently sinister in this, but one can see how it is much easier for central government to liaise with 18 régions and a growing number of number of intercommunal administrations, rather than with 101 départements and over 36,000 communes.