Geometrical proposition rejected
The first French territorial departments were proposed in 1665 by Marc-René d'Argenson to serve as administrative areas purely for the
Ponts et Chaussées (Bridges and Highways) infrastructure administration.
French Revolution, France gained territory gradually through the annexation of a mosaic of independent entities. By the close of the
Ancien Régime, it was organised into
provinces. During the period of the Revolution, these were dissolved, partly in order to weaken old loyalties.
The modern departments, as all-purpose units of the government, were created on 4 March 1790 by the
National Constituent Assembly to replace the provinces with what the Assembly deemed a more rational structure. Their boundaries served two purposes:
- Boundaries were chosen to break up France's historical regions in an attempt to erase cultural differences and build a more homogeneous nation.
- Boundaries were set so that every settlement in the country was within a day's ride of the capital of the department. This was a security measure, intended to keep the entire national territory under close control. This measure was directly inspired by the
Great Terror, during which the government had lost control of many rural areas far from any centre of government.
The old nomenclature was carefully avoided in naming the new departments. Most were named after an area's principal river or other physical features. Even Paris was in the department of
The number of departments, initially 83, was increased to
130 by 1809 with the territorial gains of the Republic and of the
First French Empire (see
Provinces of the Netherlands for the annexed Dutch departments). Following
Napoleon's defeats in 1814-1815, the
Congress of Vienna returned France to its pre-war size; the number of departments was reduced to 86, as three of the original departments had been split. In 1860, France acquired the
County of Nice and
Savoy, which led to the creation of three new departments. Two were added from the new Savoyard territory, while the department of
Alpes-Maritimes was created from Nice and a portion of the
Var department. The 89 departments were given numbers based on their alphabetical order.
The department of
Bas-Rhin and parts of
Haut-Rhin were ceded to the
German Empire in 1871, following France's defeat in the
Franco-Prussian War. A small part of Haut-Rhin remained French, however, and became known as the
Territoire de Belfort, and the remaining parts of Meurthe and Moselle were merged into a new
Meurthe-et-Moselle department. When France regained the ceded departments after
World War I, the Territoire de Belfort was not reintegrated into Haut-Rhin. In 1922, it became France's 90th department. Likewise, the Lorraine departments were not changed back to their original boundaries, and a new Moselle department was created in the regained territory, with slightly different boundaries from the pre-war department of the same name.
The reorganisation of Île-de-France (1968) and the division of
Corsica (1975) added six more departments, raising the total to 96. Counting the five
overseas departments (
Mayotte) the total comes to 101 departments. In 2011, the
overseas collectivity of
Mayotte became the 101st department.