President Sarkozy's dismissal of the prefect of Isère after riots on the streets of Grenoble has pushed the role of the prefect into the spotlight. Alice Cannet discovers that there is no job security for the men and women charged with looking after both jobs and security in France
The prefect is somewhat of an odd entity: standing between central and local government, their official role is to ensure local branches of state services function properly and they represent the state and ministers.
Often spotted in their official uniforms at opening ceremonies, commemorations and other important events, prefects are public figures but there is a lot more to them than meets the eye. Prefects are multi-talented, dedicated and hard-working individuals.
Appointed by the president, they are rarely in the same position for more than three or four years and can be dismissed or transferred at any time. As such, the job involves mobility and requires a state of total availability that many would find distressing.
Besides running what amounts to their own business with between 300 and 1,000 staff, the prefects have three main missions: to work with the police and the gendarmerie coordinating security issues; to manage the local branches of state services and their contacts with local government; and to work with different local bodies and companies to support the economy and pass on information on local affairs.
Prefects also work at four different geographical levels which determine the extent of their responsibility. Arrondissements or sub-prefectures are grouped inside departments, which are contained within regions. Then there is a grouping of regions known as "defence zones", which are essentially concerned with policing and public safety.
The regional prefect is the prefect for the department that contains what is known as the chef-lieu town: in the region Provence Alpes Côte d’Azur, the chef-lieu town is Marseille which is in Bouches-du-Rhône department. PACA’s prefect is the prefect of Bouches-du-Rhône and the headquarters is in Marseille.
The role of a regional prefecture is vast and touches every aspect of life: economic and social development, territorial development, coordination of the fields of culture, environmental protection, rural and urban spaces, local authorities and the EU.
But the majority of French residents associate the prefecture with much more down-to-earth matters, such as queueing in the prefecture to recover a lost ID card, get a driving licence, a passport or a new carte grise. In 2007, the prefectures and sub-prefectures delivered some 2.5 million driving licences, 13.2m cartes grises, 5.4m ID cards and 2.9m passports.
The first prefects were originated by Napoleon in 1800, giving them "sole responsibility for the administration" locally.
Gérard Moisselin, prefect of Loiret and the Centre region, said: "It is an ancient institution, anchored in a very old French tradition of a representative of the central power on the land of a province, a department or a region."
A tradition so ancient that the word comes from Latin praeficere: to place at the head of, and was used to describe many high positions in Roman administration.
The first days of the French republic saw local administration in the hands of the state, handled from Paris.
By 1789, in the aftermath of the Revolution, departments were created as an extension of the state administration, but later, in 1838, the department became a local authority with a head of its own. In 1982, administration was shared between local authorities and the state local offices, handled by the prefect.
Decentralisation continued with laws in 1992, 1995 and 2004 and prefects’ missions were re-defined to leave a margin of action to local authorities and elected representatives in the form of regional and departmental councils.
Today, their role is to act on behalf of the government, defend the national interest in their area and implement the government’s policies, free of political pressure.
Mr Moisselin, 58, who has been prefect of the departments of Yonne, Aisne, Indre-et-Loire, Essonne and Marne and Champagne-Ardenne region, said: "This shows the double implication of the job: to represent the government on the ground and also to represent the ground to the government. It works both ways."
He added: "The prefect is not a political activist. We are, before anything else, technicians of local government. Even though the prefect is someone close to power, it is someone who must have good listening skills and be neutral. His function is to be capable to speak to everyone and help the different players to communicate with each others.
"The point of a prefect in a divided country like ours is that he is recognised as neutral, the incarnation of competency, equidistance and objectivity and he is there to untie some of the most intricate situations. It is a very complicated role and it is what makes it interesting."
Mr Moisselin said recent administrative reforms have had no equivalent since Napoleon, and regional prefects’ responsibilities can only increase. He said: "Twenty or 30 years ago, there was decentralisation, which brought up the question of whether prefects would be abolished: but 30 years later we are still here.
"It is a job that adapts itself well and fills in a real need. We live in a complex country that is often divided and needs a strong and permanent institution such as the prefect to ensure the equilibrium of the efficient running of power at a local level."
However, the knife-edge existence of many prefects was illustrated when President Sarkozy dismissed Isère prefect Albert Dupuy, after violent attacks on the streets of Grenoble and replaced him by a former policeman, Eric Le Douaron, prefect of the Meuse.
Mr Le Douaron is the third ex-policeman to be given a major prefectoral role as Nicolas Sarkozy shows he is still fighting the war on suburban violence.
Three major areas make up the job of a préfet
Today there are 340 sub-prefects, 100 department prefectures, 26 region (four overseas) and seven defence zone prefects. There are 13 woman prefects, with one in charge of a region.
They have three areas of working: the prefecture itself and its associated offices, such as the police and the gendarmerie; making sure local branches of ministries are running well; finally, what Mr Moisselin refers to as "the rest of the world".
At the core is the security mission with police and gendarmerie and also the civil security aspect; helping coordinate aid in the case of a crisis such as the Var floods or the Xynthia storm.
Secondly, the prefect directs local ministry offices, such as the Dreal, Direccte and Diren, which concern health, environment, culture, sport, finance and different aspects of local government.
Finally the more diplomatic side of the job relates to the local economy and the links with businesses as the prefect makes contact with local elected representatives plus other partners or associations in fields as varied as the industry, agriculture, the craft industry etc.
Mr Moisselin said: "We listen to them and are in a position of support, especially in the period of crisis we have been going through in the past 18 months."
Some prefects aquire wider fame through their actions:
Baron Haussmann was the prefect responsible for some of the biggest development works in Paris in creating the boulevards.
Prefect Eugène Poubelle invented the rubbish bin as part of his bid to clean up the streets in Paris.
Jean Moulin was France’s youngest prefect and went on to be a Resistance hero.
Louis Lépine was Prefect of Police in Paris and modernised the force.
The first woman was Yvette Chassagne in 1981.
Sadly, Claude Erignac’s fame rests on being murdered in 1998 while prefect of Corsica.