The préfet (1) (prefect) is a specifically French institution brought in by Napoleon. He succeeded the intendant of the kings of France, responsible for enforcing the king’s orders in the provinces. It was Richelieu who increased the number of intendants in the seventeenth century and gave them absolute power in the provinces. This system continued by and large until the Revolution.
On 22 December 1789, the Constituent Assembly created 83 departments (2), each with an assembly and an 8-member executive. There was no longer any representative of the State. The departmental assemblies had unsupervised administrative powers, but their existence ended in April 1793 when the representatives of the people were drawn from the revolutionary committees.
Then, after an interlude when a commissaire (commissioner) represented the government, the office of préfet was created in 1800 by Napoleon Bonaparte.
The aim of the members of the 1789 Constituent Assembly had been to set up a simpler, fairer, locally elected government closer to the people and with a minimum remit. In contrast, Napoleon’s préfet "governed his department alone".
Until the mid-nineteenth century, the préfet still wielded the full power of the State, despite the existence of a departmental assembly, the General Council (Conseil général), whose remit was limited, and whose powers were exercised subject to the préfet’s approval.
From the end of the nineteenth century, the General Council gradually received its own areas of competence, but the préfet still had to approve the decisions taken. Then, as further changes came in, the General Council was given new powers including that to adopt a budget and raise taxes. It also obtained the abolition of the préfet’s authority over certain decisions. But until 1982, the préfet was still the department’s executive: he was the person who prepared and implemented the budget.
None of the regimes France has known has challenged the existence of the office of préfet. This has made changing and modernizing the administration easier and the existence of representatives who were appointed and could be dismissed by the Council of Ministers has made it easier for Ministers successfully to pursue their initiatives.
The préfet in 1980
What was the role of the préfet in 1980, following this long period of development?
Provided that it complied with statutes and regulations, the department had its own remit, notably in the health and social spheres, infrastructure, help for small communes [smallest administrative subdivision in France], transport – especially school transport –, the environment and sport.
Its freedom was, however, limited by the need for State financial help to enable it to act in its areas of competence, especially on health and social matters, even though its assembly had the power to raise certain taxes.
The préfet was still the departmental executive. But, while this position had still allowed him to impose his view at the beginning of the twentieth century, it was no longer the case on the eve of the 1982 reform. Indeed, to be adopted, the budget prepared by the préfet had to be passed by the departmental assembly and, increasingly, the latter was using this power not to reject the budget, but to contribute to its preparation and influence choices; consequently, the préfet had to reach a compromise in order to get his budget through. He used to discuss his proposed budget with the General Council chairman, finance committee and a number of other local leaders, so that there was a degree of co-management, cooperation, in short, the beginnings of decentralization – how much there was varied from department to department.
Although the préfet as departmental executive was no longer all-powerful, as the representative of both the State and the department, he was the authoritative and effective instrument of central government influence.
The 1982 reform involved both decentralization and "deconcentration". "Decentralization" means transferring State power in specific areas to local elected political authorities. "Deconcentration" is the internal decentralization of central government services, i.e. the State transfers some of its powers to its local representatives, so that in these spheres there is no loss of State powers, but a change in the way central government is organized internally.
The difference is important because a decentralized power is taken on by the beneficiary, in other words by a political authority capable of enforcing the legislator’s decision. By contrast, government ministers retain the possibility of having a say in areas of competence transferred to the préfet.
Acts passed in 1982 and 1983 brought about a new division of powers between the State, regions, departments and communes. Subsequent legislation further increased the department’s reserved powers. The préfet thus lost part of his power over certain decisions previously taken by the State, especially concerning the establishment and upkeep of collèges [schools catering for pupils aged approximately 11-15 years], health and social programmes, capital spending on sport, the environment, fire services, transport, etc.
Although under the 1982 Act, and later the 1992 Act, the departmental assemblies were assigned new powers previously exercised by the State, in political terms the essence of the reform came with the transfer of the executive to the General Council chairman, who now prepares and carries out the decisions of the departmental assembly, especially vis-à-vis the budget. The representative of the State can no longer intervene in the management of the department’s areas of competence.
The department no longer receives subsidies from the State for projects within its remit – this also used to be a way for the préfet to exert influence. The State now allocates to the departments one appropriation for capital investment and another for operating costs. The departmental assembly is free to use this allocated funding as it sees fit.
At the same time as the decentralization, and so as to prevent this undermining the influence of its representative in the department and enable decisions to be brought closer to the citizen, the government decided to implement a policy of administrative "deconcentration" by strengthening the authority of its agent, the préfet.
The State’s representatives in the departments now head the local services of the various ministries. Only the military authorities, judicial services, national education, the labour inspectorate and tax issues escape this rule. All the other services have been placed under the authority of the préfet, who chairs all the administrative committees as of right, and alone has the power to commit State expenditure in his department.
The préfet may delegate his signature to the heads of the directorates (directeurs départementaux), but such delegation must clearly mention the power(s) delegated.
Despite these increased powers, the préfet still has to do the bidding of the government, which, today as before, appoints him and, if it so wishes, replaces him.
Although he has to respect the remit of the department’s elected representatives, the préfet must also prevent them from encroaching on the State’s powers, which highlights the fact that decentralization and "deconcentration" require a balance which is sometimes hard to find.
Although the préfet no longer has any control over the appropriateness of the decisions taken by the General Council in the exercise of its powers, he can refer to the courts any decision he deems against the law and the court will decide.
This gives the préfet some influence over the decentralized powers, because he can raise any concerns about legality with the General Council chairman. A subsequent discussion of the wording of the text may obviate the need to submit it to the court. But in the event of disagreement it is the chairman who decides and he may refer the matter to the court for a decision. The idea is that by exercising his power to verify their legality, the préfet must not be able to regain control over the decisions taken by the department within its own remit.
He cannot refer a decision to the court in one case and not in another identical one: the law must be the same for all. This can be awkward at times if the General Council chairman is a minister or an influential member of the opposition. Tact and diplomacy are required, but in the end, after some years of vacillation, respect for this principle has been achieved.
The préfet fulfils the function of government public relations officer in the department
Through his job the préfet knows a whole lot of things; many others are also well-informed, but none to the same degree in every sphere. This is why, over and above his official role, he acts as "government public relations officer" in his department.
He must provide information and explain the government’s policy. This is bordering on the political and is sometimes felt as such. But in fact it is not, since the law applies to everyone and it is logical for its implementation to be explained to local leaders and the public. While he has to defend a statute passed by Parliament, in order to protect his authority he has to be prudent and not promote bills – something some politicians do not always understand.
Although government policy needs to be explained, it is also important for préfets to report back to the government on reactions to government policy, going beyond any immediate emotional response and distinguishing what is important from minor considerations through proper analysis. It is a serious responsibility to have to tell the government the truth, even if it is unpleasant. It is the first duty of the State representative.
The préfet is responsible for public order
The préfet is the law and order person. Since in this sphere he carries the full authority, sovereignty of the State, it is a task of fundamental importance. This requires a leader capable of personally taking responsibility and directing operations in the event of disturbances. This is why the police and the gendarmerie are under his authority. It is the préfet who authorizes or bans demonstrations.
But maintaining public order does not only involve ensuring public peace, but also civil defence, i.e. the protection of people and property from natural, industrial, technological and accidental hazards, as well as crime prevention. The préfet is responsible for all these matters.
Consequently, the préfet has to prepare the State services in his department for all eventualities, especially the management of serious accidents and consequences of natural disasters. It is the préfet whom the public will hold accountable.
Préfet de région
The region is the largest administrative division in France, with each made up of 2-8 departments, and above the departmental préfets there is a regional préfet (3). But this senior civil servant is not their superior in rank, even though the administrative powers he exercises give him a certain authority over them. The government has only one official representative: the préfet in his department.
The regional préfet combines this office with that of departmental préfet in the region’s principal town (chef lieu). He has the same function vis-à-vis the regional assembly as the departmental préfet with regard to the General Council: he is responsible for judicial oversight. He has the same authority over the heads of the regional directorates as a departmental préfet over the heads of the departmental directorates. His role is to coordinate and provide impetus and he is the person who allocates State funding between the departmental préfets in his region.
He gathers information and prepares proposals he considers will be useful in framing national policy, and sends them to ministers. He must take any initiative conducive to furthering the economic and social development of his region within the general context of the government’s town and country planning policy. He ensures the coordination required to implement national policies.
Since the decentralization of 1982, the Regional Council (conseil régional) has had new powers in the spheres of vocational training, investment, secondary education, communication and transport infrastructures, culture, tourism and the environment; here, in fact, it often liaises with the communes and departments.
The regional préfet plays an important part in the management of European funding awarded to his constituency. He prepares applications with the relevant local authorities, informs the government of his opinion before sending them to Brussels, and subsequently oversees the proper use of the grants. This reinforces his authority in regions eligible for help from European structural funds.
The regional préfet has become a representative of the European Union in his region, especially with regard to making applications and following them up (industrial restructuring, rural development, economically underdeveloped regions). Increasingly, he is asked to check compliance with European regulations. The regional préfet chairs the European projects monitoring committee, or sometimes co-chairs it with the Regional Council chairman. The authorities in Brussels correspond increasingly with him. European civil servants come to see him. However, the government is not in favour of any moves towards making the préfet a representative of Europe, because it is anxious to keep its prerogatives in the matter of relations with the European Union.
The préfet’s role of "commander"
The préfet is responsible not just for implementing and enforcing legislation, but also for respecting and ensuring others respect the spirit of the law. Only the préfet can do this: for example, he may have to interpret a central administration circulaire [circulaires have the status of regulations if they contain instructions to civil servants] which seeks to apply the legislative text in a questionable way.
However, this is not his most important job in that the office of préfet is a system of command and leadership which operates through the préfet’s personal authority and his authority over the representatives of the various ministries in the department. He must be able to respond to events and cope with the demands of any situation calling for authoritative action. He must resolve problems and conflicts, get administrative, economic and social leaders to agree. He has a role of mediator. He must be a link, an architect of unity, a reducer of tension.
In short, the préfet must be a problem solver, which sometimes means signing something no one wants to sign, interpreting some implementing regulation, if only to resolve a human problem or ensure fairness triumphs over the letter of the law. Of course, the decision taken must be in accordance with the law, its spirit if not its exact wording. Only the préfet can play, take on this role.
The office therefore requires an ability to take command. A préfet has to make his presence felt, acquire authority and use it as a means of applying moral justice, a task rendered that much more difficult because he is dealing with the problems of everyday life. But this is also what makes the work of a préfet so interesting and important.
Changes in the relationship between the State and local government
Logically, each tier of government (State, region, department, commune) should finance operations in its own areas of competence with its own resources from its own taxes.
This is not the case, because, while the State does not finance activities outside its own remit, it requires local authorities to help fund some central government projects, especially in the context of the contrats de plan Etat-régions (4). For example, local authorities who were very keen to develop their road networks have paid 50% of the cost of some main roads. They have also contributed to the building of university and research premises under the University 2000 plan and the U3M (University of the third millennium) plan even though the State is solely responsible for higher education. In the case of both roads and university buildings, regions and departments sometimes try to outdo each other, with the result that the wealthiest local authorities do best.
Financial constraints have led the State increasingly to seek top-up funding in order to carry out its own projects. But this has contributed to rises in local taxation and these forms of cross financing can lead to confusion about responsibilities. Both at regional and departmental level, the task of the préfet, the representative of the State, is consequently rendered more complicated because he finds himself forced to ask for funding for State-run projects. Limiting such cross financing should be a major item in the necessary reform of the State.
People might wonder about the relationship between a préfet who represents central government and locally elected representatives who are not of the same political persuasion. Generally speaking, this does not prevent them from working together. The locally elected representatives know that the préfet represents a government chosen by universal suffrage and, similarly, the State representative is aware that, even if they do not belong to the same political party as the government, the local representatives have also been elected by universal suffrage and must be able to take decisions freely under the powers entrusted to them by the law. It is on this basis of mutual recognition that the 1982 reforms on decentralization and "deconcentration" have become a reality and operate satisfactorily, despite some difficulties at the practical level.
(1) Nowadays préfets may, of course, be men or women. To simplify this text, the words "he" and "his" have been used throughout to indicate "he/she" and "his/her".
(2) Today 96 in metropolitan France, 4 overseas.
(3) There are 22 regions in metropolitan France, [4 overseas].
(4) Contrats de plan, drawn up at regional level, lay down the major economic and social priorities for the region and set out the relevant action programmes, which the plan’s signatories (State, regional authorities) are committed to finance.
Association du Corps Preféctoral, Histoire du ministère de l’Intérieur de 1790 à nos jours, Revue administrative, 1983.
Albertini, J-B., La déconcentration, Économica, 1997.
Bernard, P., Le préfet de la République, Économica, 1992.
Gleizal, J-J., Le retour des Préfets, Presses universitaires de Grenoble (PUG), 1995.