Excerpt taken from the book  Sixty Million Frenchmen Can’t Be Wrong (Ch.11)

Local Government in FranceDuring our stay in France, we met at least half a dozen mayors who explained the various aspects of local administration to us. The most generous was our friend Jean-Marie Marsault, the former sergeant of the First Armored Marine Division, who fought in Algeria. Before retiring, Jean-Marie worked as an insurance salesman. He had had a busy life raising a family of four and acting as mayor of his town, Fresnes (population eight hundred), in the Loire Valley from 1977-89. His biggest accomplishment, by far, was the transformation of a swamp near the village center that used to belong to the local châtelaine (castle owner) into a park with a pond.

Jean-Marie spent several hours explaining the ins and outs of local administration to us, showing us papers and copies of budgets. But it was only after reading our notes that we realized one of the most telling aspects of local political life was the language he used, in particular the way he designated his citizens. When French mayors talk about their constituency, they never use the word “citizens.” No one talks about “the citizens of Lyon” or “the citizens of Toulouse.” Mayors speak of their administrés (literally, their “administereds”). The French can only be citizens of one thing: the one and indivisible Republic, and that entity “administers” them at the local level through mayors.

At the time of the Revolution, the doctrine of the publique was that “nothing should come between the citizen and the State.” As we have explained in previous chapters, the French State actually created France by assimilating very diverse populations and giving them a single nationality. To do that, the State eradicated local power, eliminated local languages, and deprived local populations of any sense of community. During the nineteenth century, strict laws prevented local communities from creating associations or even charities. And until about 1885, the job of mayor was almost honorary. The function gradually became more and more important throughout the twentieth country, but local power is still extremely limited in France, and so is the possibility of developing a local identity.