For members


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


Can foreigners in France be called up for jury service?

Juries are used in the majority of criminal trials in France and can sometimes involve foreign jurors. Here's what you need to know.

Can foreigners in France be called up for jury service?

Can foreign residents in France be called up to be a jury?

In order to be called for jury duty, you must hold French citizenship, so foreign nationals in France who have gained French citizenship are eligible to be called up.

If you simply a resident in France with a valid residency permit you cannot be called for jury duty.

Aside from holding French nationality, there are some other criteria you must meet as well in order to be called up.

  • Be over 23-years-old;
  • Know how to read and write in French;
  • Have never been found guilty of a crime or délit (less serious, mid-level offense);
  • Not be under someone’s care and legal responsibility (sous tutelle) because of a physical or mental disability; 
  • Not be a civil servant stripped of their function;
  • Not be a member of government, parliamentarian, magistrate or member of the police, prisons authority or gendarmerie. 

Anyone who has a personal relationship (family, friends, romantic partners) to the accused, the plaintiff, their lawyers, court interpreters, witnesses or one of the magistrates, cannot serve as jurors. 

How good does your French need to be?

Although the Justice Ministry has not published guidelines as to what level of French jurors will require, Maître Sabine Haddad, a Paris-based lawyer, has written that if you believe you do not “master the French language”, you can request not to take up jury duty via a signed letter addressed to the court (a demande de dispense). 

It is assumed that the vast majority of jurors selected will speak French fluently, given that most of them will have been raised in France. And legal language can be complicated for French people as well as foreigners who have spent years living in the country. 

When would a jury be used?

In France there are two kinds of criminal courts.

Every département has a cours d’assises which is a criminal court dealing with serious crimes that can carry a sentence of more than 20 years in prison (like rape, murder and armed robbery). Jurors – or jurés, in French – work alongside professional magistrates during cours d’assises proceedings to decide whether the accused is guilty or not.

Other criminal offenses that can carry a sentence of between 15-20 years are judged in a kind of criminal courts known as a cour criminelle. No jurors are involved in these proceedings. 

How are jurors selected?

Jurors are randomly selected from the electoral list of the commune in which they live. If you have been chosen at this stage, you will be informed. 

Each commune sends a list of names the the départemental cour d’assises when requested. The court then removes profiles that don’t meet the eligibility requirements, have already served as a juror in the last five years, or who for other reasons are unfit to serve as a juror. 

A special commission then examines the demandes de dispense – or requests to avoid jury duty – from those chosen during the initial random selection. 

A second selection of 45 jurors is then made and those to have been named as jurors can then be called to preside over a session of the court. Each case normally features 6 first choice jurors and 9 back-up jurors who are once again selected at random the shortlist of 45. 

Is there any way to get out of jury duty?

If you don’t turn up to jury duty without a legitimate reason (motif légitime) you can be fined 3,750. 

To avoid jury duty, you must deliver a signed letter to the court explaining why. This letter is known as a demande de dispense and must be delivered to court before September 1st ideally. If not, you must attend the first day of the hearing and provide evidence as to why you cannot serve as a juror. 

Legitimate reasons include:

  • Being over 70-years-old;
  • No living in the département where the cour d’assises is located as your principal residence;
  • Having difficulties that will prevent you from attending court, such as serious illness, an ill child or deafness. 

As already mentioned, lawyers say you can also use non-mastery of the French language as an excuse. 

Do jurors get paid? 

The average jury duty lasts about 15 working days, during which you must remain available. 

If you work in the private sector, your contract is suspended for the duration of the court session – your employer has the obligation to provide you with a document that proves your salary and any further evidence that can demonstrate how you will be losing money during your leave (this can be used later to claim compensation). If you work in the public sector, you are automatically granted a leave of absence. 

The financial compensation you receive depends on whether you work in the private or public sector.

Private sector jurors receive a flat fee of €96.16 per day. If their employer decides to keep paying them while they are on jury duty, they can accumulate this fee alongside their normal salary. The fee counts towards a juror’s annual taxable income. 

If a private sector worker is not remunerated by their employer during jury duty, they are eligible for further compensation of up to €90.16 per day, alongside the initial €96.16. Both payments must be requested directly from the court

Public sector employees receive the €96.16 per day alongside their normal salary. 

You can also apply for money to cover costs of food, accommodation and transport while you are on jury duty. The amount you will receive depends on a variety of factors including where you live and what mode of transport you use. A full guide is available here

Your employer has a legal obligation to let you complete jury duty. 

What is the role of a juror?

Jurors receive a small amount of training before presiding over a case – or more often than not, multiple cases during a single court session. The court president and prosecutor will explain your responsibilities and you will also be asked to watch a short film. Often, jurors will be offered the chance to visit a prison too. 

When the trial begins, you will be asked to sit in on hearings and listen to deliberations from the judges. After this, you will take part in secret votes alongside other jurors and the magistrates. The first vote is on whether or not the suspect is guilty and the second is on the severity of the sentence. 

How you vote is entirely up to you. 

Jurors are expected to be attentive, impartial and discrete. You are not supposed to talk about the case with people outside the courtroom. And you must not reveal any final decision before the day of sentencing – doing so could land you with a €15,000 fine and a year in prison.