Living in France For Members

Préfecture v Mairie: French admin offices explained

The Local France
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Préfecture v Mairie: French admin offices explained
(Photo by Jeff PACHOUD / AFP)

Life in France involves many administrative processes, so you will want to get familiar with the most important administrative buildings you'll be visiting along the way.


The préfecture

The préfecture is a French government building that plays an important part of life in France, particularly for foreigners as this is the building responsible for handing out administrative documents like residency permits. 


What is it? The préfecture is the administrative building for the département (county) and as such there are 96 préfectures across mainland France, and five in its overseas départements. Some areas also have sous-préfectures - exactly what functions they have responsibility for varies between areas.

The préfecture is under the control of the Préfet - the highest ranking local official in the département. This is a fonctionnaire (civil servant) role, so préfets are appointed rather than elected. Their job is defined as "ensuring the maintenance of order and security" in their area and coordinating government action at the local level.

What does it do? Probably the most important for role of the préfecture for foreigners is that they deal with residency permits - so getting, renewing or altering a titre de séjour would all be done via the préfecture. Likewise, préfectures also handle requests for French citizenship.

They are also responsible for numerous other aspects of local life that relate to public order or security such as driving rules, policing and security. If you want to start an association, then you would also get that registered at the préfecture.

Préfectures used to be in charge of driver's licences and vehicle registration documents, but these process are now done online with the ANTS system.

READ MORE: 'Be prepared to be patient' - Registering your British car in France after Brexit

Préfectures in different places have different rules on whether you can visit on a walk-in basis or need to book an appointment in advance. Likewise, some préfectures have more admin processes available online than others - however all have a website that explain how you can contact them.

Paris - the French capital is is an exception when it comes to préfectures. In Paris, there is a 'Préfecture de Police' which heads up the security in the city of Paris and the inner suburbs of the city.

They also issue identity cards, residency permits and other administrative documents to Paris residents. Those who live in the Paris suburbs go to their local préfecture for residency permits or citizenship applications. 

The Mairie

The mairie - or town hall - is the other administrative building that you will likely become familiar with if you move to France as a foreigner. 

What is it? The mairie is the town hall, under the control of the mayor (maire). France has more than 36,000 mayors, from the big city mayors like Paris boss Anne Hidalgo who control huge budgets and a vast town hall full of staff to village mayors who might be responsible for a couple of hundred people.


The role of mayor of a French village or small commune is unique to France and foreigners often don't realise how much power a local mayor wields. The mayor's role makes him or her the head of the municipal council, the commune's main magistrate and the judicial police officer.

They are also generally very knowledgeable about local rules and regulations and any permissions and permits you might need, so it's a good idea to go along and introduce yourself if you're moving into a small village . Most mayors are also local people so they will have an interest in keeping their village alive and thriving so can make valuable allies.

What does it do? Town halls are very important for la vie quotidienne (daily life) in France.

From certificates related to marriage and birth to death, this is where you would get any necessary documentation.


If you want to get married, then (owed to the fact that France is a secular country), only civil marriages are legally recognised. There’s nothing to stop you from having a religious ceremony, but this is one more thing that you will have to do at the mairie. The same goes for PACs (registering a civil partnership). Usually the person to perform the marriage or civil partnership will be the mayor, wearing their tricolore sash of office.

READ MORE: Wedding bells: What you need to know about getting married in France

Hunting and fishing licences are usually issued by the mairie, they also administer local taxes (although they don't collect taxes - see below for the section on the tax office) and in some places offer adult education classes including French classes for foreigners.

The mairie is also very important when it comes to buying and building property in France. There are several administrative procedures and documents that will need signing, from zoning rules to your rights about change the exterior of the property, that will take you to the mairie at some point in the property ownership process in France.

In small villages you may find that the mairie doesn't perform all the above administrative functions - in some areas for administrative convenience mairies delegate certain tasks to either another mairie in a larger place or a département-level office. But the mairie can always guide you in the right direction, so it's usually still the easiest place to start. 

READ MORE: Tips for renovating French property: 'Double your budget and make friends with the mayor'


The tax office

There are many Centres des finances publiques - tax offices - across France, and you can find the one nearest to you by going online and googling Centre des finances publiques plus the name of your commune to find your local office. If you are looking to either take a walk-in appointment or schedule one, then you should first check the opening hours, some offices - especially in small towns - are only open on certain days.

If you're used to dealing with HMRC in the UK or the IRS in the US, you might be expecting a system only accessible by phone or online, but in France your local tax office is open for visits - and staff are generally friendly, helpful and knowledgeable.

Even quite small towns have a tax office, and they are open to the public on a walk-in basis. Visiting your local tax office can be a great way to get clarification on how to fill out a document, contest a tax bill, or just ask any general questions you might have.

Again, in small towns you may find that the local tax office doesn't cover all areas of taxation and if you have a complicated query they may refer you to the office in a larger town.

READ MORE: 5 top tips for dealing with the French tax office

What about the courthouse?

Unless you are summoned to court in France or have an ongoing legal dispute, you likely will not need to spend much time at the courthouse. 

For reporting a crime, you can do so at the police station (tribunal) or the gendarmerie. If you are wondering about the difference, you can read more HERE.

READ MORE: What to do if you are arrested in France



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