It is often said that the consul is "the head of the French community" in his area. It means that he administers it, but more than anything he protects it.
The consular institution dates from the Crusades, if not from ancient times. In the Orient, the consuls had sovereign power over their compatriots. In 1669, Colbert attached them to the Navy. With the revolution, they were transferred to Foreign Affairs. Today, the international status of consuls is fixed by the 1963 Vienna Convention on consular relations. The agreement of both the sending country and the host country is necessary for a consulate to be opened. The head of a consular office is a diplomat appointed by the President of the Republic from whom he receives a consular commission. He cannot take up his position before authorisation - the "exequatur" - has been received from the host country
The consular network: France maintains 113 consulates general and 18 consulates. In addition, there are 8 detached chanceries, with limited remits, and 350 consular agencies run by honorary consuls, who in general are volunteer nationals from the host country. The range of activities undertaken by the consulates is constantly developing.
The consul keeps records of French nationals and registers them (they are not obliged to be registered but it is in their own interests). The new information and communication technologies, for example the planned opening of Internet sites, will help to maintain contact with expatriates, particularly young people, whose trace may easily be lost. The consul is responsible for public records, issues passports and proofs of identity, puts papers in order with the national service, draws up certain notarised deeds, prepares powers of attorney for voting and organises elections. He may represent nationals in the courts and visit them in prison. He aids and if necessary repatriates the destitute. He also has legal and maritime powers. What the texts do not say is the responsibility that weighs on the consul in the event of a crisis or a catastrophe affecting French nationals: even the most up to date security plan is not able to anticipate all eventualities. Furthermore, in liaison with the Ministry of the Interior, the consul issues entry visas for France: he has to reconcile strict measures against illegal immigration with flexibility towards persons that may be able to help further bilateral relations.
For French nationals the consul is both the Mayor and the sub-Prefect, without the police force and with a duty of assistance and protection. For foreigners, he is, just as the Ambassador is, France.
From time immemorial, consuls have been authorised to gather commercial information and to stimulate economic relations. The creation of economic expansion offices, some in fact set up inside consulates, does not release consuls from this task. It has actually been recognised with the recent opening of combined offices, the head of which is both the consul and the head of the PEE (economic expansion posts). The consul’s information gathering mission does not stop there: it extends to all fields - political, cultural, technical and others - and continues to grow. Today, within his jurisdiction, the consul plays a representation and communication role that is the same as that of the ambassador.
The autonomy of consulates: While they are fulfilling their remit, the consul is independent of the ambassador, except for a requirement to keep him informed.