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A chef-lieu (French pronunciation: [ʃɛfljø], principal place) is a town or city that is pre-eminent, from an administrative perspective, in any given sub-division of territory in France, French-speaking countries, and other countries too (as Italy).
The capital of an Algerian Province is called a chef-lieu. The capital of a district, the next largest division, is also called a chef-lieu. While the capital of the lowest division, the municipalities, is called agglomeration de chef-lieu (chef-lieu agglomeration) and is abbreviated as A.C.L.
In Luxembourg 
Luxembourg is divided in two arrondissements, three districts, twelve cantons and one hundred and eighteen towns. Each has a chef-lieu. In particular, in every district chef-lieu, there is a district commissioner specifically in charge of the administration of the towns within the district.
The chef-lieu of a département is known as the préfecture. This is the town or city where the prefect of the départment (and all services under his/her control) is situated, in a building known as the prefecture. In every French region, one of the départments has pre-eminence over the others, and the prefect carries the title of Prefect of region X…, Prefect of Department Z… and the city where the regional prefect is found is known as chef-lieu of the region or, more commonly, Regional prefecture. The services are, however, controlled by the prefecture of the départment.
The chef-lieu of an arrondissement, commonly known as the sous-préfecture is the city or town where the sub-prefect of the arrondissement (and the services directly under his/her control) is situated, in a building called the sub-prefecture. The arrondissement where the département prefecture is located does not normally have a sub-prefect or sub-prefecture, the administration being devolved usually to the Secretary-general of the departmental prefecture, who functions as sub-prefect for the arrondissement.
The chef-lieu of a canton is usually the biggest city or town within the canton, but has only a nominal role. No specific services are controlled by it. In past decades, there was always a Gendarmerie, a treasurer and a Justice of the Peace.
The chef-lieu of a commune is the principal area of the town or city that gives the commune its name, the other areas of the town being called hamlets. French typographers will use a capital for the ‘Le’ or ‘La’ preceding the name of places having ‘chef-lieu of town’ status, and lowercase ‘le’ or ‘la’ for hamlets.
In New Caledonia 
The chef-lieu indicates the principal city of the provinces of New Caledonia. So Nouméa is the chef-lieu of South Province. But the chef-lieu can also mean the principal area within a town. So Wé is part of the town of Lifou, but is the chef-lieu of Lifou. In the Loyalty Islands and the other islands, the name of the chef-lieu differs from that of the name of the town. For the towns of the mainland, the chef-lieu has the same name as the town. Nouméa is a town composed only of Nouméa.
Francophone West Africa 
Many of the West African states which gained independence from France in the mid-20th century also inherited the French administrative structure of Departments and Communes, headed by a Chief-Lieu. States still using Chief-Lieu to identify the administrative headquarters of a government subdivision include Senegal, Burkina Faso, Benin, Mali, and Niger.
Taking Niger and Mali as examples, the administrative subdivisions down to the Commune level each have a formal place of administrative headquarter, titled the chef-lieu. The larger portion of the terminology of administrative division is inherited from colonial rule as part of French West Africa, and has survived and been somewhat modified over time. In both nations there have been remarkably parallel histories. With the decentralization process begun in both nations in the 1990s, the chef-lieu has transitioned from the location of the Governor, Commandant, or Prefect and their staff, to the location of Commune, Cercles of Mali/Departments of Niger, and Regional Councils and a variety of decentralized bodies. The chefs-lieux of a Region, Cercle or Département, is usually also a Communal chef-lieu. Both nations collect these councils in a "High Council of Collectivites" seated at the nation's capital. Smaller sub-divisions in Mali's Communes (Villages, Tribal councils, Quarters) are administered from or identified as a Place/Site (Site in French), so the chef-lieu is literally the Chief-Place even at the lowest level.
In Switzerland 
The term chef-lieu is applied to the capital of each Swiss canton. In 16 of the 26 cantons, the territory is subdivided into districts. Every district also has a city nominated as chef-lieu and each has a prefect.
The term chef-lieu is used to designate the capital of each gouvernorat (department). Each of the 24 gouvernorats is subdivided into delegations (districts) which each have a central city as chef-lieu of delegation.
The ‘f’ in chef-lieu is pronounced (almost as "v"), in contrast to chef-d'oeuvre where it is mute.
- The Fiancée of the pirate (1969) is a film by Nelly Kaplan, where the action takes place in a hamlet where everyone spends their time worrying about what everyone thinks about the chef-lieu of the town.
- Bierschenk T., Olivier de Sardan, J.‑P. (eds), 1998, "Les arènes locales face à la décentralisation et démocratisation. Analyses comparatives en milieu rural béninois", in Bierschenk T. & Olivier de Sardan J.-P. (eds), Les pouvoirs au village. Le Bénin rural entre démocratisation et décentralisation, Paris, Karthala : 11‑51.
- Claude Fay [La décentralisation dans un Cercle (Tenenkou, Mali). Autrepart: Logiques identitaires, logiques territoriales, 2000, IRD http://horizon.documentation.ird.fr/exl-doc/pleins_textes/pleins_textes_7/autrepart/010021949.pdf#page=122].
- Bréhima Béridogo, [« Processus de Décentralisation au Mali et Couches Sociales Marginalisées », Bulletin de l'APAD, 14, 1997 http://apad.revues.org/581]
- for Mali, see Bréhima Kassibo, [« La Décentralisation au Mali : État des Lieux », Bulletin de l'APAD, 14, 1997 http://apad.revues.org/579]
- REPUBLIQUE DU NIGER Loi n° 2002-017 du 11 JUIN 2002 déterminant le régime financier des Régions, des Départements et des Communes.
- Loi n° 2002-014 du 11 JUIN 2002 portant création des communes et fixant le nom de leurs chefs-lieux. Includes list of 213 communes rurales and seats, 52 Communes urbaines and seats.