Know Your Prefecture From Your Mairie? A Guide to Key French Buildings and Their Uses

The Town Hall (La Mairie) in Vichy
The Town Hall (La Mairie) in Vichy | © Charles-Edouard Coste / Flickr
Alex Ledsom

French administration can be complicated, but each French town has some key buildings that do specific things. Here’s a guide to what they do and why you might need to visit them.

La Mairie

The town hall is the centre of administration for day-to-day life. It’s where you register births, deaths and marriages. It’s also the place that takes care of everything to do with school life, such as enrolment and school lunches. In most towns, these buildings are the most elegant, and you’ll often find cafés and restaurants surrounding them. In rural areas, the Mairie is often the soul of a French village.

The Mairie at Equevilly

La Trésor Public

La Trésor Public means ‘public treasure’, and this building is where you’ll be able to sort out everything to do with your taxes. The French tax system is complicated, and the people inside these buildings will be able to help you sort out your taxe d’habitation (local council tax) and your avis d’imposition (yearly tax statement).

La Préfecture

There are 101 préfectures in France, one for each administrative department. They are responsible for carrying out the work of the Ministry of the Interior, and so they hand out administrative documents sich as driving licenses and passports. They also control the police and fire brigade. The préfectures won’t necessarily be in the largest towns, as they tend to be in the geographic centre of the department, traditionally a day’s horse ride away from the furthest border.

The Préfecture in Marseille


Each department is divided into arrondissements, and these are where you’ll find the sous-préfecture (if there isn’t a préfecture). There are 233 sous-préfectures in France, which make sure that everyone local complies with national speed limits, building regulations and other important documents and rules.

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