In the administrative divisions of France, the department (French: département, pronounced ) is one of the three levels of government below the national level ("territorial collectivities"), between the administrative regions and the commune. There are 96 departments in metropolitan France, and 5 overseas departments, which are also classified as regions. Departments are further subdivided into 334 arrondissements, themselves divided into cantons; the last two have no autonomy, and are used for the organisation of police, fire departments, and sometimes, elections.
Each department is administered by an elected body called a departmental council (conseil départemental (sing.), conseils départementaux (plur.)). From 1800 to April 2015, these were called general councils (conseil général (sing.), conseils généraux (plur.)). Each council has a president. Their main areas of responsibility include the management of a number of social and welfare allowances, of junior high school (collège) buildings and technical staff, and of local roads and school and rural buses, and a contribution to municipal infrastructures. Local services of the state administration are traditionally organised at departmental level, where the prefect represents the government; however, regions have gained importance in this regard since the 2000s, with some department-level services merged into region-level services.
The departments were created in 1790 as a rational replacement of Ancien Régime provinces with a view to strengthen national unity; the title "department" is used to mean a part of a larger whole. Almost all of them were named after physical geographical features (rivers, mountains, or coasts), rather than after historical or cultural territories which could have their own loyalties. The division of France into departments was a project particularly identified with the French revolutionary leader the Abbé Sieyès, although it had already been frequently discussed and written about by many politicians and thinkers. The earliest known suggestion of it is from 1764 in the writings of d'Argenson. They have inspired similar divisions in many countries, some of them former French colonies.