Abstract This paper reports on multidisciplinary research into the setting up of local development areas in France known as pays. Under the impetus of the 1999 blueprint legislation on territorial development, the pays policy is designed to encourage local economic actors to put together a development project. These structures have two distinctive characteristics in the context of French institutions: they are devised for the micro-regional scale and are to be established on a voluntary basis through the free association of local councils. Pays are more obviously suited to rural areas but they may also bring together urban and periurban councils. This means that those pays that have been formed exhibit a wide variety of sizes and structures. First, a snapshot of this diversity is presented by proposing a typology of all the pays in France. This is then extended to a sociological and economic analysis of the corresponding territories. The sociological analysis focuses on the role of local councillors in constructing pays and on the roles of other categories of actors. The economic analysis raises the issue of just how relevant the areas thus delimited are for local and regional development.