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Préfecture v Mairie: French admin offices explained

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.

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

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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For members


Will you need a French ID card to use the carte vitale?

The French government has unveiled a plan to combat benefit fraud and medical tourism, but there is one aspect that could also affect foreigners who live in France - a requirement for a French ID card in order to use the carte vitale health card.

Will you need a French ID card to use the carte vitale?

The plan to combat benefit fraud was unveiled in an interview with social security minister Gabriel Attal in French daily Le Parisien. The interview covered only the broad outline of the plan, so there are many questions still unanswered.

In among plans to restrict access to social benefits such as unemployment benefits and family payments to people who spend a significant part of the year outside France was a proposal about the carte vitale health card.

Attal said: “I want to move gradually towards merging the carte vitale card and the identity card into a single secure card, as is the case in Belgium, Portugal and Sweden. This is both a simplification measure and an additional guarantee of the individual’s identity and associated rights.”

He added: “The issue now is cartes vitale used for illegal medical tourism. People coming to France and using someone else’s carte vitale for treatment.”

Over the last five years, 2.3 million cartes vitale have been deactivated because they were “surplus”, according to Attal.

So why is this a problem for foreigners living in France?

The carte vitale is the card that proves that you are registered in the French health system, when accessing treatment, you present your card and a certain percent of the cost of your appointment or prescription is reimbursed by the French state.

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

Anyone who has been living full time in France for more than three months is entitled to a carte vitale – there is no need to be a French citizen – and the vast majority of foreigners living in France have the card, and use it to access healthcare.

The French ID card, on the other hand, is only available to French citizens – including foreigners who have been naturalised as French. It is carried by virtually all French people (although it is not compulsory) and acts as a combined proof of ID, proof of French citizenship and travel document (if you are travelling within the EU).

There are, therefore, many thousands of people who are legally resident in France and who have a carte vitale, but do not have a French ID card.

It is possible to access healthcare in France without a carte vitale – but it means that the state will not reimburse the cost. Patients must therefore pay out of pocket or rely on private health insurance, which is unaffordable for many.

READ ALSO How France’s public healthcare system works

So what will happen to foreigners with no French ID?

As we mentioned, this plan is in the very early stages at the moment. The carte vitale aspect was just one part of a wide-ranging interview that provided very little in the way of concrete detail.

Any change to this system would have to be drafted into a bill, presented to parliament and passed into law. It would also have to go through several checks from regulatory bodies – including a review by France’s data protection authority, CNIL, in order to determine whether it will be legal to combine identity data with health data, as well as how to make such a combination card secure. 

People who are legally living and working in France are entitled to register in the healthcare system, while the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement also guaranteed healthcare for Brits who were living in France before 2011.

In short, French authorities would have would have to introduce some kind of different system for foreign carte vitale holders, otherwise it would, in effect, amount to stripping them of their rights. 

Le Parisien itself noted that “there are still several questions outstanding” around this plan, particularly for the many foreign residents who benefit from a carte vitale, but do not hold a French ID card as well as for those French nationals who also do not have the ID card, because it is not technically mandatory. Attal has not given any details as to how those questions would be answered but The Local has asked the finance ministry to clarify the situation for foreign residents in France.

Waiting times

On top of the legal and political hurdles is a practical one – waiting times for a new carte vitale are already very long, and reissuing the cards to all of France’s roughly 67 million residents is an enormous task.

Pressed on this, Attal said: “I’m launching a preconfiguration mission to determine the timetable and procedures. Obviously, this project cannot be envisaged until card production times return to normal! We need an ambitious and credible timetable.”

A proposal to create a biometric carte vitale – under the same conditions as the current card but with added security measures such fingerprints – was made last year, at an estimated cost of €250 million.

It has run into opposition both on cost and practicality grounds, with many doctors also opposed to it as risking excluding the elderly and other vulnerable groups from healthcare. 

Attal said that a recent report recommends scrapping the idea, although no final decision has been made.

The Local has asked the finance ministry to clarify the situation for foreigners in France