The municipality (commune) is the oldest and smallest administrative unit. Instituted in 1789 ("A municipality in every city, town, parish and rural community"), it is the ground-level unit in the French administrative system. There are nearly 37,000 municipalities at this time, a large number and higher than the rest of European Union partners put together. The reason is that the term applies to all municipalities regardless of size (80% of municipalities have fewer than 1,000 inhabitants). the central government is encouraging many of the small municipalities to merge or group together in "urban communities" and associations of several municipalities or syndicats. The trend developed with the law of 6 January, 1992 which sets out new structures for cooperation to rationalize the administration of towns and cities according to their demographic, economic or cultural importance and their shared interests.
The powers and juridictions of the municipalities are limited to actions in their immediate vicinity, namely:
- land-use planning, urban planning, public works;
- construction and maintenance of nursery and primary schools;
- social assistance (e.g. for housing, for the elderly, etc.);
and certain economic initiatives, initially limited to incentives to create jobs (usually tax-incentives) but since extended to direct aid (loans, loan guarantees, etc.) and indirect aid to help retain jobs.
Like the department and the region, the municipality has an executive authority and a deliberative body. At municipality level, executive authority is held by the mayor. He is elected for six years by the municipal council and is chosen from its ranks. The mayor has powers in two different capacities since he is both an official of the municipality and the representative of the State in the municipality.
In his capacity as the municipality’s chief executive, he carries out the decisions of the municipal council (the deliberative organ), represents the municipality in legal matters, proposes and implements the budget, preserves and administers the property of the municipality. The mayor also has his own powers whereby he is responsible for security and public health, having at his disposal to this end the municipal administration of which he is the hierarchical chief.
As the State’s representative, the mayor performs weddings, keeps the civil register of births, marriages and deaths, and is an officer of the police judiciaire under the authority of the public prosecutor. he also performs a number of administrative functions, for example, publishing laws and regulations, establishing the electoral roll, and the draft roll of those required to do military service.
Mayoral acts are unilateral administrative acts, generally decisions subject to compliance with the law when issued by the mayor as municipal executive and to the hierarchical power of the prefect acting in his capacity as the State’s representative.
In their commune, French citizens and (from 2001) residents who are nationals of other European Union states elect municipal councillors for a six-year term by direct universal suffrage; the councillors then elect the mayor. the number of municipal councillors depends on the size of the population, as do some aspects of the voting system, which in both cases is a two-ballot majority list poll. However:
- In communes with fewer than 3,500 inhabitants, voting for candidates on different lists (vote-splitting) and deletion of names (preference voting) are allowed and votes are counted by candidate;
- While in those with more than 3,500 inhabitants, the ballot paper must not be altered by the voter and any vote for a list on which names have been deleted is considered invalid, votes are counted by list and some seats are allocated proportionally.
At department level, French citizens vote in what are known as "cantonal elections" for members of the General Council for a six- year term. These are two ballot majority uninominal (single candidate) polls, with one councillor elected for each constituency (canton). Half the councillors come up for elections every three years.
In 1982 the decentralization legislation made the region a new tier or local government in France. Members of the regional council are elected for six years. Electors vote for a departmental list of candidates, which proportional representation and distribution of the remaining seats using the highest average system, a polling method that allows minorities and small parties to be represented.