Through the example of French flood-control policy, this paper illustrates the general change taking place in the relation of societies and governments to risk. Former policies based on structural measures to reduce the alea were found excessively expensive, but liberal approaches based on insurance mechanisms were not suited to face extreme events. Better solutions depend on the re-appraisal of water as a common property and the design of corresponding institutions. In France, these could have been the agences de l'eau, which are now in charge of implementing the Water Framework Directive. But back in 1966, central government refused to involve them in flood control, keeping the latter in its own realm. After 1983, successive Governments preferred to develop cat'nat’, a solidarity scheme based on taxes added on insurance premiums, and on local risk protection plans (PPR-i) constraining land use rights. This system's benefits and shortcomings are discussed, including the discrepancies between national post-disaster solidarity and local pre-disaster vulnerability reduction; it lastly shows recent evolutions towards catchment-based approaches in complex multi-level governance, in which the hydrographic district level, adopted to synthesise the flood risk management plans (FRMPs), is supplemented by catchment programmes on flood risks called PAPI. Implementing the FRMPs in France illustrates the need for economic incentives and common-pool institutions in multi-level governance.