There are 101 prefectures in France, one for each department. The official in charge is the prefect (French: préfet). The prefecture is an administration that belongs to the Ministry of the Interior, and is therefore in charge of the delivery of identity cards, driving licenses, passports, residency and work permits for foreigners, vehicle registration, registration of associations (creation, status modification, dissolution), and of the management of the police and firefighters.
Prefectures are located near the geographic centre of their departments, and were originally chosen for being within a day's travel on horseback from anywhere in the department. Therefore, the largest settlement in a department may not always be its prefecture: the department of Marne, for example, has its prefecture at Châlons-en-Champagne despite the city of Reims, near the Aisne border, being four times its size.
The prefect represents the national government at the local level and as such exercises the powers that are constitutionally attributed to the national government. The prefect issues ordinances written for the application of local law: to close a building that does not conform to safety codes, or modify vehicular traffic regulations (speed limit, construction permits).
The governing body of the department is the departmental council (French: Conseil départemental), which is in charge of the building and maintenance of schools and roads, financial assistance to dependent people (disabled and elderly), and promotion of local economic development, etc. In the past, the prefect was head of the department, but since 1982, the president of the departmental council has assumed the role of chief executive of the department.
There is an exception in Paris (Île-de-France) and its three surrounding departments (Petite Couronne). These departments are administered by a single prefecture for law enforcement and security purposes, called the Prefecture of Police (French: préfet de police); a situation inherited from the Paris Commune of 1871. The power of law enforcement is usually invested in the mayor in other French communes.
The departments are divided into arrondissements, themselves divided into cantons. The chef-lieu d'arrondissement is the subprefecture (French: sous-préfecture). The official in charge is the subprefect (French: sous-préfet. Cantons have relatively few competences, the most important one being the local organisation of elections (cantons are electoral subdivisions).