1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Prefect

PREFECT (préfet), in France, the title of a high official. The prefects of the department were created by a law of the 28th Pluviose in the year VIII. (Feb. 17, 1800). They were intended to be the chief organs of internal administration, and have, in fact, discharged this function, especially under the First and Second Empire, surviving, though with diminished importance, under the other forms of government which modern France has seen. In comparison with other French officials, they are well paid (the salary nowadays ranges from 39,000 to 18,000 francs according to the class).

In the administration of the ancien régime the term “ prefect ” was not employed; practically the only case in which it occurs was in the organization of the establishment of institutions opened by the religious orders, in which there was generally a “ prefect of the studies ” (préfel des études). In the year VIII., in the discussion of the law of the 28th Pluviose, no reason was stated for the choice of this term. But like the “ Tribunes ” and “ Consuls ” of the constitution of the year VIII., it was taken from the Roman institutions which were then so fashionable (see Praefect); it may also be recalled that Voltaire had used the term “prefecture” in speaking of the authority of Louis XIV. over the free towns of Alsace.

The prefect has to a certain extent a double character and two series of functions. Firstly he is the general representative of the government, whose duty it is to ensure execution of the government's decisions, the exercise of the law, and the regular working of all branches of the public service in the department. In so far the role of the prefect is essentially political; he guarantees the direct and legal action of the government in his department. He has the supervision of all the state services in his department, which procures the necessary uniformity in the working of the services, each of which is specialized within a narrow sphere. He serves as a local source of information to the government, and transmits to it complaints or representations from those under his administration. In the name of the state he exercises a certain administrative control over the local authorities, such as the canseil général, the mayors and the municipal councils. This control, though considerably restricted by the law of the 10th of August 1871, on the conseils généraux, and that of the 5th of April 1884, on municipal organization, still holds good in some important respects. The prefect can still annul certain, decisions of the conseil général. He can suspend for a month a municipal council, mayor or deputy-mayor; certain decisions of the municipal councils require his approval; and he may annul such of their regulations as are extra vires. He can annul or suspend the mcLire's decrees and he has also considerable control over public institutions, charitable and otherwise. He may make regulations (réglements) both on special points, in virtue of various laws, and for the general administration of the police.

When the prefects were created in the year Vlll. the intend ants of provinces of the ancien régime were taken as a model, and there is a great resemblance between their respective functions. The prefect, however, is no more than an intend ant in miniature, being only at the head of a department, whereas the intend ant was over a généralité, which was a much larger district. In the same way the sous-préfets correspond to the subdélégués of the intend ants, with the difference that they are actual officials subordinate to the prefects, while the subdélégués were merely the representatives with whom the intend ants provided themselves, and to whom they gave powers.

Secondly, the prefect is not only the general representative of the government, but the representative of the department in the management of its local interests. But his unfettered powers in this respect have been reduced under the third Republic. This has chiefly been the effect of the law of the 10th of August 1871, which has led to decentralization, by increasing the powers of the conseils généraux. The law created a departmental committee (commission départemenlale), elected by the Conseil général which, in the interval of the sessions of the latter, takes part in matters concerning the administration of the departmental interests, either in virtue of the law, or by a delegation of powers from the conseil général.

The sous-préfets, having very limited powers of deciding questions, serve above all as intermediaries between the prefect and the persons under his administration. This function was most useful in the year VIII., when communications were difficult, even within a department, but nowadays it only leads to complications. As a matter of fact their chief service to the administration lies in keeping up good relations with the maires of the communes in their arrondissement, and thus acquiring a certain amount of influence over them. The National Assembly, which passed the law of the 10th of August 1871, had also decided to suppress the sous-préfets, but M. Thiers, who was then president of the Republic, persuaded them to reconsider this decision. Since then the Chamber of Deputies has on several occasions taken advantage of the budget to attempt the suppression of the sous-préfets by refusing to vote the amount necessary for the payment of their salaries. But the government has always opposed this unconstitutional measure, holding that the suppression could only be effected by an organic law, and that it would necessarily involve a remodelling of the administrative organization. So far their view has prevailed in the Chambers.  (J. P. E.)