Interview: “They thought that the number 1 might consider itself more interesting or more powerful than the number 2”.

In 1790, during the revolution, the departments were created with a precise idea: all of the towns of a single department were within at most a day’s horse ride from the town chosen as the principal place; now we say prefecture. At that time there were 83 departments compared to 99 today. Their story is told to us by Marie-Vic Ozouf-Marignier, director of social history group of the University of Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences.

– The departments were created voluntarily as a double system; on the one hand political and administrative, that is they ought to represent the electoral base for the establishment of legislative assemblies, the house of deputies, and on the other hand they ought to be an administrative unit for the management of all of public life.

Did they try to divide the more rebellious regions?

– Yes, absolutely. The big problem which the revolutionary deputies who made the departments stumbled upon was the opposition of the former provinces, in particular the big provinces like Brittany, like Languedoc, the Dauphine which did not want to be split up into small pieces. In the end, the principle of dividing the big provinces was upheld and they simply in detail tried to respect the usual places in this and that town.

Has the division into departments changed?

– no, the division into departments has not changed practically since its creation, apart from the additions of the departments of Savoie and then of the Compte of Nice which became Alpes-Maritimes in 1860 and of course at the beginning of the 1960s, the reorganisation of the departments around Paris and then you must of course add the changing of the overseas territories into departments.

Why did they choose to give numbers to the departments?

– Well, the choice was not immediate. At the start, they rather chose not to give them numbers because in the spirit of equality which was ruling that the time of the revolution, they thought that the number 1 might consider itself more interesting or more powerful than the number 2. However, later the numbering system came about very quickly in the directories, in all the systems of reference, in effect departments created a form of identity, sometimes very strong what’s more, as in our time, in the overseas departments especially, it is fashionable for the young to wear T-shirts with the number of their department. Something abstract that a number can form a departmental identity.

Might we have new boundaries in the years ahead?

– They are thinking about it very seriously of course and especially in the context of European integration which encourages new groups; on the one hand larger than the local community, on the other hand larger than the department to the level of the region, so there is both political and sentimental resistance as we can see with this question of the numbers of the department in car registration plates. In order to remove the departments, the inhabitants and the politicians must take note that they have something to gain by that. Well, at the moment, that does seem to be the case.

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