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In France, each department has a prefect who acts as the representative of the state. French Prefect.jpg
In France, each department has a prefect who acts as the representative of the state.

Prefect (from the Latin praefectus, substantive adjectival [1] form of praeficere: "put in front", meaning in charge) is a magisterial title of varying definition, but essentially refers to the leader of an administrative area.


A prefect's office, department, or area of control is called a prefecture, but in various post-Roman empire cases there is a prefect without a prefecture or vice versa. The words "prefect" and "prefecture" are also used, more or less conventionally, to render analogous words in other languages, especially Romance languages.

Ancient Rome

Praefectus was the formal title of many, fairly low to high-ranking officials in ancient Rome, whose authority was not embodied in their person (as it was with elected Magistrates) but conferred by delegation from a higher authority. They did have some authority in their prefecture such as controlling prisons and in civil administration.

Feudal times

Especially in Medieval Latin, præfectus was used to refer to various officers—administrative, military, judicial, etc.—usually alongside a more precise term in the vernacular (such as Burggraf , which literally means Count of the Castle in the German language).


Saint Margaret attracts the attention of the Roman prefect, by Jean Fouquet from an illuminated manuscript Sainte Marguerite et Olibrius.jpg
Saint Margaret attracts the attention of the Roman prefect, by Jean Fouquet from an illuminated manuscript

The term is used by the Roman Catholic Church, which based much of its canon law terminology on Roman law, in several different ways.


In the context of schools, a prefect is a pupil who has been given certain responsibilities in the school, similar to the responsibilities given to a hall monitor or safety patrol members.

Many college preparatory boarding schools utilize the position of prefect as a high student leadership position.

Modern sub-national administration

In the 1980s, under the presidency of François Mitterrand (1981–1995), a fundamental change in the role of the prefect (and sub-prefect) took place. The previously extremely centralized French (Fifth) Republic was gradually decentralized by the creation of the Regions and the devolution of central state powers towards the Régions, Départements and Communes (municipalities). New elected authorities were created (e.g. the Conseils régionaux) in order to administer the subdivisional entities (collectivités territoriales) of the nation (law from 2 March 1982). The changes have gradually altered the function of the prefect. He is still the supreme representative of the state in a département, but has lost his omnipotent function of chief administrator. Instead, he has acquired the roles of chief controller (not a title) of regional, departemental and communal public accounts and of chief inspector (not a title) of good (i.e. law-abiding) governance of the authorities of the respective territorial entities. [2]

A Préfet maritime is a French Admiral (Amiral) who is commissioned to be the chief commander of a Zone maritime (i.e. a section of the French territorial waters and the respective shores).

In Paris, the Préfet de police (prefect of police) is the head of the city's police under the direct authority of the Ministre de l'Intérieur (Minister of the Interior), which makes him unique as usually in French towns and cities the chief of the local police is subordinated to the maire (mayor), who is the local representative of the minister in police matters.


The Prefect of Police ( Préfet de police) is the officer in charge of co-ordinating police forces in Paris (see above under "France"). The local police in Japan are divided among prefectures too. Also, in several countries of Latin America, the rank of prefect is still in use. In the Investigations Police of Chile (Policia de Investigaciones de Chile) the rank of prefect is reserved for the highest-ranking officers. [3] On the other hand, in Argentina the Argentine Federal Penitentiary Service (Servicio Penitenciario Argentino) also use the rank of prefect as a high-ranking officer. [4]

Coast Guard

Several countries of Latin America use the term "prefecture" (prefectura) to denominate a Coast Guard service, whether these are independent organizations or as a part of a Navy. The Argentine Naval Prefecture it is a federal Coast Guard service of Argentina independent from the Argentine Navy. On the other hand, the National Naval Prefecture of Uruguay has similar duties to the ones of a regular Coast Guard but it is subordinated to the National Navy of Uruguay.

See also

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Prefect is a magisterial title of varying definition, but which, basically, refers to the leader of an administrative area. It may also refer to:

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  1. Adam's Latin Grammar
  2. Le petit Larousse 2013 pp873 and 1420
  3. "Policía de Investigaciones de Chile."International Encyclopedia of Uniform Insignia Forum. Retrieved Aug. 9, 2021.
  4. "LEY N° 20.416" . Retrieved August 9, 2021.