Prefect (France)

A prefect (French: préfet, plural préfets) in France is the state's representative in a department or region. Subprefects (French: sous-préfets) are responsible for the subdivisions of departments, known as arrondissements. The office of a prefect is known as a prefecture and that of a subprefect as a subprefecture. Regional prefects are ex officio the departmental prefects of the regional prefecture.

Pascal Mailhos, then prefect of the Haute-Garonne department, in Toulouse in 2014

Prefects are tasked with upholding the law in the department they serve in, including controlling the actions of local authorities to ensure adhesion to national guidelines. They are authorised to sue local collectivities in the name of the state.[1]

Prefects are appointed by a decree of the President of France when presiding the Government's Council of Ministers, following a proposal by the Prime Minister and the Minister of the Interior.[2] They serve at the Government's discretion and can be replaced at any meeting of the Council of Ministers.

From 1982 to 1988, under the Socialist administration of President François Mitterrand, prefects were called commissaires de la République (the Republic's commissioners) and subprefects commissaires adjoints de la République (the Republic's deputy commissioners).[3]


Jean-Luc Videlaine, then prefect of the Finistère department, in dress uniform at Bastille Day 2015 in Brest
Uniform hat of a French prefect during the Second World War

The post of prefect was first created on 17 February 1800 by then-First Consul Napoléon Bonaparte.

Their roles were initially similar to those of the pre-revolutionary intendants.[4] Prefects were initially charged with supervising local governments in their department, ensuring that taxes flowed to Paris and supervising conscription at the local level.[5]

Currently, the main role of the prefect is defined in article 72 of the Constitution of France:

In the local governments of the Republic, the representative of the State, representing each member of the Government, is in charge of national interests, of administrative checks, and the respect of Law.

The exact role and attributions are defined in decrees, most notably decrees of 1964, 1982, 2004, each replacing the preceding one.

The prefect of the département containing the chef-lieu de région is also the préfet de région, or the prefect of the région.

Prefects operate under the minister of the interior. Their main missions include.

  • representing the state to local governments;
  • security
  • safety
    • the decision to evacuate zones facing natural disasters; the organisation of relief operations;
  • responsibility for official documents, such as
  • ensuring respect for legality: officials working for the prefect verify the legality of decisions made by local governments and submit doubtful cases to administrative courts or to financial auditing courts.

Prefects may issue administrative orders in areas falling within the competency of the national government, including general safety. For instance, they may prohibit the use of certain roads without special tyres in times of snow. The prohibition on smoking or leaving the motor running while filling the fuel tank of a motor vehicle is another example of a matter typically decided by a prefectoral administrative order.

On official occasions, prefects wear uniforms.

For much of the time after 1800, the departments largely functioned as transmission belts for policies developed in Paris. As such, prefects originally had fairly extensive powers of supervision and control over departmental affairs. This was especially true during the Consulate and the First and Second Empires when even the most trivial local matter had to be referred to the prefect. Since 1982, local government has been progressively decentralized, and the prefect's role has largely been limited to preventing local policies from conflicting with national policy.

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