For members


EXPLAINED: The French metropole, département and commune system

Some of France's latest Covid-19 restrictions have been introduced on a 'metropole' basis - but as this designation is not often used in daily life it has left many confused over whether the restrictions cover them or not. We explain the term.

EXPLAINED: The French metropole, département and commune system
AFP/WIkimedia Commons/SUperbenjamin

If you're living in France you will obviously know your own address, but at various times you will also need to know your département, département number, region, commune, ville and even metropole.

Here's a quick breakdown of what these are:


Mainland France is divided into 13 regions which in addition to having regional councils also have regional health authorities known as Agence régionale de santé (ARS).

The areas covered by these regions are huge – Nouvelle Aquitaine in the south west covers 84,000 sq km and is larger than the entire country of Scotland – so if you hear that something is happening in your region it's worth checking a map, as the events could be more than 300km away from you and still be in the same region.

The current regions are; Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, Bretagne, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, Corse, Centre-Val-de-Loire, Grand-Est, Hauts-de-France, Île-de-France, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, Normandie, Occitanie, Pays-de-la-Loire and Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur.

The number of French regions was slimmed down in 2016 with several areas merging into new regions so you will still sometimes hear people refer to regions like Poitou-Charente and Picardie which don't technically exist any more.


These are the French equivalent of counties and are probably the most widely used when it comes to things like health restrictions, weather warnings, drought alerts and various other important designations. They also have local governments known as préfectures which play a large role in local decision making.

There are 101 départements in France, five of which are outside 'the hexagon' as mainland France is known. These départements d'outre-mer (overseas départements) are: French Guiana in South America, Martinique and Gaudeloupe in the Caribbean and Réunion and Mayotte in the Indian Ocean. They are as much a part of France as Dodorgne or Paris and fall under the direct control of the French government.

Each mainland département has a two-digit number as well as a name, which forms the first part of your postcode and also appears on car number plates.

Official sources such as French government sites generally use both the name and number of a département, for example “Nice (06)” and French people quite often refer to their département by its number if you're asked which département you live in it's quite acceptable to reply seize instead of Charente. You refer to it by the whole number, so Paris (75) is soixante-quinze rather than sept cinq (with the occasional exception of le neuf trois).

This car is registered in département number 95, Val d'Oise. Photo: AFP


Metropoles are not often used in official designations, so the announcement that some health restrictions such as early closing of bars would be applied on a metropole level caught some people by surprise.

This designation refers to a city and its surrounding areas – suburbs and/or small towns surrounding the city.

So for example the metropole of Aix-Marseille groups together 92 towns or suburbs around the big cities of Marseille and Aix-en-Provence. The métropole of Toulouse includes the city itself and 37 surrounding towns and suburbs.

Initially to be officially classed as métropole the urban area needed to have a population of over 400,000. But the rules have since been relaxed.

Certain métropoles such as Grand Nancy, Dijon and Toulon have a population of less than 300,000.

There are now 21 of these in France, centred around the largest cities – Grand Paris, Marseille, Bordeaux, Brest, Clermont-Ferrand, Dijon, Grenoble, Lille, Metz, Montpellier, Grand Nancy, Nantes, Nice, Orléans, Rennes, Rouen, Saint-Etienne, Strasbourg, Toulon, Toulouse and Tours.

Map: Superbenjamin/Wikimedia commons

Métropoles were only created in 2010 so they are relatively new administrative term. They were essentially created to help the country grow economically after the 2008 financial crisis and meant greater powers for local authorities on how the metropolitan areas are run.

The government website states: “In order to strengthen the regions, the status of métropole was created by the law of December 16, 2010 to promote the role of large urban conurbations as engines of growth and economic attractiveness in the country.”

The overall aim of becoming a métropole is to bring together cities with the surrounding areas “in order to enhance the economy, transport networks and to develop universities, research and innovation resources. It also ensures the international promotion of the territory.”

In total, around 11 million people live in a 'metropole' in France and that number may grow given more cities in France may apply to be granted the status of métropole.

EXPLAINED This is how France's new Covid-19 alert system works

France has more than 36,000 mayors, recognisable on ceremonial occasions by their sash. Photo: AFP 


The commune is the lowest level of civil administration of France and there are more than 36,000 of them – each with their own mayor and local council.

They vary widely in size and population – some cover entire towns or cities others include just a couple of tiny villages. And some communes have no inhabitants at all – such as the six French towns which have a mayor but no residents

Mayors have a wide range of powers – even those in tiny villages –  and during the Covid crisis many activities, such as the distribution of free masks, was done on a commune level.


Paris forms a bit of an anomaly to some of these general rules – it is a city, a département and a commune and is also part of a metropole – Grand Paris. The area covered by Paris is only the part of the city inside the périphérique ring road, everything outside the ring road – which includes the Stade de France and both city airports – is part of the suburbs.

There are three départements that encircle Paris and form the inner suburbs, known as the petite couronne, they are; Seine-Saint Denis, Val-de-Marne and Hauts-de-Seine.

Paris has a mayor – currently Anne Hidalgo – but inhabitants of the city also elect a mayor for each arrondissement (district) of the city. Those who live in the suburbs elect a mayor via their commune.


Member comments

  1. This should be great, but your very first map does not have fully updated names to match with your written list of the regions, eg you’ve got Picardie on the map but not the name for the whole region, so then when you write later that you may hear people talking about Picardie & it “doesn’t exist any more”…. well you’ve got it as the département but where’s the new name for the region on the map? There’s no indication for Hauts-de-France or Grand-Est.
    An occasional typo is inevitable but no new map when that’s the point of the section?

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.


Carte vitale: France to adopt a new ‘biometric’ health card

The French parliament has approved a €20 million project to launch a 'biometric' version of the carte vitale health insurance card.

Carte vitale: France to adopt a new 'biometric' health card

As part of the French government’s package of financial aid for the cost-of-living crisis, €20 million will be set set aside to launch a biometric health card, after an amendment proposed by senators was approved.

Right-wing senators made this measure a “condition” of their support for the financial aid package, according to French left-wing daily Libération, and on Thursday the measure was approved by the Assemblée nationale.

While it sounds quite high tech, the idea is relatively simple, according to centre-right MP Thibault Bazin: the carte vitale would be equipped with a chip that “contains physical characteristics of the insured, such as their fingerprints” which would allow healthcare providers to identify them.

The carte vitale is the card that allows anyone registered in the French health system to be reimbursed for medical costs such as doctor’s appointments, medical procedures and prescriptions. The card is linked to the patient’s bank account so that costs are reimbursed directly into the bank account, usually within a couple of days.

READ ALSO How a carte vitale works and how to get one

According to the centre-right Les Républicains group, the reason for having a ‘biometric’ carte vitale is to fight against welfare fraud.

They say this would have two functions; firstly the biometric data would ensure the card could only be used by the holder, and secondly the chip would allow for instant deactivation if the card was lost of stolen.

Support for the biometric carte vitale has mostly been concentrated with right-wing representatives, however, opponants say that the implementation of the tool would be costly and lengthy.

It would involve replacing at least 65 million cards across France and repurposing them with biometric chips, in addition to taking fingerprints for all people concerned.

Additionally, all healthcare professionals would have to join the new system and be equipped with devices capable of reading fingerprints. 

Left-leaning representatives have also voiced concerns regarding the protection of personal data and whether plans would comply with European regulations for protecting personal data, as the creation of ‘biometric’ carte vitales would inevitably lead to the creation of a centralised biometric database. Additionally, there are concerns regarding whether this sensitive personal information could be exposed to cybercrime, as the health insurance system in France has been targeted by hackers in the past.

Finally, there is concern that the amount of financial loss represented by carte vitale fraud has been overestimated. The true figures are difficult to establish, but fraud related to carte vitale use is only a small part of general welfare fraud, which also covers unemployment benefits and other government subsidy schemes.

The scheme is set to begin in the autumn, but there us no information on how this will be done, and whether the biometric chip will just be added to new cards, or whether existing cards will be replaced with new ones.