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The French Disease

Lenin used to say that there were four major bulwarks against revolutionary change in Europe: the English House of Lords, the Prussian General Staff, the Roman Catholic Church, and the French Academy. But at the time of his death in 1924, Lenin had already glimpsed under his nose what proved to be the most obdurate and elusive counterrevolutionary bastion of them all: bureaucracy,* in particular the monolithic bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. No other institution of the twentieth-century state, capitalist or socialist, has displayed such capacities for blocking change, adapting to all circumstances, and absorbing, disguising, and wielding political power.

For decades, statesmen, politicians, and scholars alike have been complaining about the bureaucratic menace, but very few have systematically analyzed or plausibly explained its political effect, or even how it functions. To be sure there is a field (some would say a barren, wind-swept tundra) of political science known as “public administration” which compiles neat descriptions of the structures and functions of various governmental agencies. But these studies are intentionally isolated from the historical, political, and social worlds, so that the result is rather like a collection of mounted butterflies: pretty, but essentially useless if you want to know how the creature lives.

Thus it is refreshing to find a political scientist who opens his book on bureaucracy with the words: “This is not a study in what is traditionally known as public administration…” and then proceeds to live up to them. Suleiman chose to study the bureaucracy of France. A good, but audacious choice, for French bureaucracy’s control of and interference in all aspects of society can be compared with those in no other country outside the Soviet bloc. There is virtually no sphere, save the religious (and even here not entirely, because in Alsace the government still pays the salaries of clergymen), which escapes its embrace. In education, the arts, radio and television, public works, taxation, scientific and scholarly research, diplomacy, transportation, the military, technology, development, finance, social welfare, the judiciary, energy, and of course the entire police force from traffic cops to riot troops, the French civil service holds partial or complete monopolies. A French citizen deals with his national government through an administrative machinery that affects his life, from cradle to tomb, in everything from his gas, electricity, and (unitemized) telephone bills to parimutual off-track betting and state lotteries.

By comparison, the United States, with its networks of state and local governments and its extensive private sector, all of which compete and tangle with the federal bureaucracy, appears to be a veritable anarchy of decentralized authority. Indeed the case of the French Minister of Public Instruction who could boast to a visitor, “At any given moment of the academic day, I know precisely what page of the civics textbook the eighth-graders of France are studying,” is without precedent, if not inconceivable, in the US, where a Secretary of HEW doesn’t know what’s going on down the hall, let alone in a public high school in San Francisco.

The major differences between the American and the French bureaucracy, however, are not so much uniformity and centralization as political influence and control. The extent of the French civil service’s political power is enormous and subtle in ways which few Americans would countenance. In France locally elected mayors of towns and cities may be suspended, as may municipal councils, through administrative decree. The city of Paris has no mayor at all, and even the decision of whether to build a Left Bank expressway lies in the hands of the central government. The decision to construct a public swimming pool in Antibes and half of the money to pay for it come from Paris. Newspapers and magazines may be seized at the printing presses by administrative decree, as indeed they often were during the Algerian crisis. And the popularly elected National Assembly may occasionally be by-passed altogether while the government rules through its bureaucracy by administrative ordinance, as happened for a time in 1967.

As for partisan control of the civil service, notwithstanding the Nixon administration’s worst misappropriations of the federal bureaucracy, there is nothing in this country like the seventeen-year control and abuse of the civil service by one party which the Gaullists, and now the Giscardians, have exercised in France without letup since 1958. Internal spying, blatant purges, wiretapping, open political partisanship in decision-making and construction, tax pressure, the handing out of political justice by courts, etc., are accepted as daily occurrences in France, as opposed to this country, where they are the source of scandals which may reach to the White House. Not for nothing do French authorities boast, “There could be no Watergate here.”

To staff and run so vast a civil service, France is obliged to employ 1.5 million of her citizens, or nearly 10 percent of her entire active population. Overseeing the operation are some 5,000 men and women who occupy positions of authority, and at the very pinnacle of the huge pyramid sit a couple of hundred men who comprise what could properly be called France’s administrative elite. They are the stars of Ezra Suleiman’s Politics, Power, and Bureaucracy in France.

The heart of what Suleiman has to say concerns the way most of France’s leading civil servants are drawn into politics by being “detached” from their administrative duties, in the leading branches of the bureaucracy to serve in highly political “cabinets” or staff offices of the various ministers. After a number of years of this type of service, the cabinet staff members return to the bureaucracy where, as a reward, they receive key positions (directorships) of great power and importance. But even though they are back in the civil service, they remain “politically sensitized.” And that is the point. Anyone who has watched the evolution of the upper civil service in the Gaullist republic has been struck by the degree to which nearly all the influential positions of the bureaucracy are now in the hands of men, often relatively young, who have done tours of duty and proved their trustworthiness in ministerial cabinets.

After a decade and a half of this process, the French upper civil service is very nearly an adjunct of the governing political party. There are virtually no dissenters, no Socialists, and of course no Communists (though these parties represent nearly half of the nation’s voters) left in the upper reaches of the administration. The typical itinerary for countless young, gifted, and reformist graduates of the elite French schools of public administration (notably L’École nationale d’administration, or L’ENA, and the École libre des sciences politiques, or “Sciences po”) is to enter the civil service as a Socialist, Communist, or left-wing Radical, and then shortly be obliged either to “evolve” in one’s political thinking so as to receive a position in a Gaullist minister’s cabinet, or to retain one’s views and face endless pressure, frustration, and a career blocked at a relatively low level.

There are many examples of those who “evolved”—notably Simon Nora and Yves Canac, who began as followers of the old Socialist-Radical Pierre Mendès-France in the famous “Club Jean Moulin” and ended up working for Gaullist premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas. Canac found the switch from Chaban to Giscard easy and now has an important job in the new president’s cabinet. Nora preferred to seek his reward in private business and wound up as president of the Hachette publishing empire. He spoke out too loudly for Chaban in last spring’s presidential elections, however, and the victorious if vengeful Giscard contrived to get Nora kicked out of Hachette.

One who steadfastly refused to knuckle under, in spite of promises of a meteoric career, is the Socialist deputy and leader, Pierre Joxe Son of the Gaullist minister Louis Joxe, and a graduate of L’ENA, where he stood high in his class, Joxe—a socialist by conviction—got out of the army in 1958 and went to work in the upper civil service because “I believed the state administration to be fair and neutral.” Within a few years, Joxe encountered intense pressures to “alter” his political views. “I was offered several key cabinet posts very early in my career, but I declined because I didn’t want to go into ‘politics.’ Then I was informed that the only way to succeed in the civil service was to pass by way of a ministerial cabinet.” Joxe stuck it out awhile longer, “but one day I saw my dossier and I knew my usefulness and career were finished.”

Joxe chose a political career “faute de mieux“: “I never wanted to become a deputy, and if there had been the slightest chance that a reformist government would come to power in France, I would have stayed in the civil service. But I realized that the state bureaucracy under the Fifth Republic was slowly evolving into an executive arm of the Gaullist party, and for a socialist to stay in the administration was suicide. I was pushed into politics.” Now, over a decade later, Joxe remarks, “The life of an opposition deputy is a dog’s life as far as his treatment by the bureaucracy is concerned. We beg for crumbs and often enough go hungry. Half the time the local prefect of my constituency won’t even invite me to official functions, let alone grant me the assistance and support which is my due as deputy.”

Socialist and Communist deputies have almost no communication with the supposedly “neutral” state servants and technocrats who administer their constituencies, and whose decisions daily affect the lives of men and women who, in Joxe’s words, have “not one scintilla of control over these decisions or the men who make them.” He adds, “Every week I receive reports of administrative abuses in my constituency—a worker’s family is refused a scholarship for a brilliant and accomplished younger son because an elder boy has already received one, and two scholarships are deemed ‘too many’ for a worker’s family; a lower-level functionary in the department of building and construction is told to refuse a permit to a well-known local socialist who wants to construct a thatched-roof cottage, but is obliged from on high to issue a building permit to a large industrialist who wants to set up a silo that will ruin a beautiful historical site. And there is nothing I can do about any of this. I have no ‘pull,’ no influence at all with the authorities of the bureaucracy. They are completely at the beck and call of Gaullist party leaders and capitalist big-shots.”

Even François Mitterrand, chief of the Socialist Party and twice candidate for the French presidency, himself a deputy, admitted, “I long ago quit trying to request or expect help for my constituency from any civil servant.” Suleiman corroborates such testimony with statistics: according to his poll of almost all the major directors in the French bureaucracy, nearly two-thirds said that they had no contact whatsoever with political spokesmen of the opposition parties, though they admitted to having frequent contact with those of the Gaullist and Giscardian majority.

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    Some writers maintain that Lenin’s losing battle against the growing Soviet bureaucracy So weakened his health that it brought on the stroke that ultimately killed him.

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