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France is situated in the northwest of Europe and is one of the member countries of the European Union. Its political system is made up of several layers of administrative divisions, which include regions, departments, arrondisements, cantons and communes. These divisions encompass not only France, but also other countries that were previously colonized by the French government, and are currently considered as being under the French territory. For administrative purposes, these countries are called "overseas regions" while France in Europe is called the "Metropolitan."
The French territory is first divided into 26 regions, 22 in Metropolitan and four overseas. Regions are governed by a regional council of elected members and have neither legislative nor regulatory power. However, they do impose their own taxes, leading them to have considerable budgets to manage the country’s decentralized services. Regions are further subdivided into 100 departments, 96 in Metropolitan and four overseas. The four overseas regions and departments are one and the same: French Guyana, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the Reunion.
French departments are administered by a general council of elected members and are represented by two-digit numbers, which are designated to each department following the alphabetical order. These numbers appear in INSEE (Institut National de la Statistique et des Etudes Démographiques) codes, social security numbers and French postal codes. They are also currently used as the final digits at the end of French vehicle registration numbers.
Departments are comprised of 341 arrondisements, or districts, which are run by officials elected by the president. Unlike regions and departments though, arrondisements are not legal entities in the eyes of the law. Arrondisements are then subdivided into 4,032 cantons that serve as constituencies during the elections for the general council of each department.
Cantons are actually made up of 36,781 communes, which is the lowest administrative division of France. Most of these communes, 36,569 of them, belong to France Metropolitan while the remaining 212 belong to overseas regions. There is no exact definition of a French commune. Paris, a city with more than 2 million inhabitants, is considered a commune. Similarly, Rochefourchat is a one-person commune situated in the region of Rhône-Alpes. A mayor and its municipal council run a commune. Despite the disparity in the sizes of French communes, the powers of those who govern them remain the same. Having said that, there are three communes – Paris, Marseille and Lyon – which are further subdivided into 45 municipal arrondisements, each with its own arrondisement mayor and council.
The administrative divisions in French overseas regions are the same as in France Metropolitan. The four overseas regions/departments are divided into 12 arrondisements, which are further subdivided into 153 cantons. These 153 cantons are made up of 212 communes. Overseas regions are governed in the same manner as in Metropolitan, and with the same authority accorded to those elected to power.
Over the years, the regional and departmental face of France has altered very little. The lower administrative divisions, however, have merged and separated often over the course of time. For instance, smaller French communes may merge to form an additional canton to facilitate administrative and political purposes, to regroup resources and share common public services. Due to these volatile changes, the French administration is reputed to be one of the most complicated in Europe.