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.

The evidence in Suleiman’s book disputes the standard view of such writers as Michel Crozier, Herbert Lüthy, and Stanley Hoffmann, who see the French civil bureaucracy as “a rock against which all political storms beat ineffectively and in vain,” the “permanent reality behind the changing political façade.” They see a malignant but largely apolitical elite as the obstacle to far-reaching change in France. On the contrary, Suleiman argues in this controversial book, it is precisely this “political façade” which has remained permanent in France for seventeen years. The Gaullist and now the Giscardian parties, through purges, attrition, and the creation of “parallel hierarchies” of bureaucrats in the politicized ministerial staffs, have come to control and manipulate the civil machinery of the state in their own interest. The administration is not some strange, monolithic idol squatting immovably in the midst of French society, but at its top, at least, it is a highly political and sensitive group of men and institutions who are therefore quite vulnerable to a sharp change in the political climate. (Witness how openly committed to the right were many high-ranking civil servants in last year’s presidential election.)

When the French translation of Politics, Power, and Bureaucracy in France appears in October, it will doubtless have an emotional impact on French society not unlike the effect two years ago of Robert Paxton’s Vichy France, and for the very same reasons. Indeed Professor Suleiman has already contributed to Le Monde a controversial front-page article which set off a heated debate. Suleiman’s findings, like Paxton’s historical judgments, are not confined to merely academic circles but trespass into the clash of party and politics and ideology.

It is a commonplace to say the French are “historically conscious,” as if somehow the nostalgic mood of the American Bicentennial permeated France all the time. The point, however, is that neither the French nor the American government is concerned with history per se, but with using the past for political purposes. Here the two countries differ: Americans, by and large, cling to a frayed-but-resilient politics of “consensus,” which is still amazingly able to foist off on an increasingly insecure population the treacly myths and illusions of our divinely inspired, righteous, altruistic, revolutionary forefathers. Politics and bureaucracy in the US do not reflect any clear-cut conflict in ideology between the two controlling political parties, and American history still supplies myths that are usable for Madison Avenue, Wall Street, Washington, labor unions, and the Chamber of Commerce.

Not so for France, however, where history is not a nostalgic anodyne but a source of on-going political conflict among contending parties, leaders, and ideologies. French society is (by comparison with the US) saturated with serious historical debate. In the past four years alone, French film-makers and journalists have produced over twenty-four hours of nationally attended and much-debated films and documentaries (The Sorrow and the Pity, Français, si vous saviez, Lacombe, Lucien, among many others) which rehash contemporary French history from every angle. The government, through the bureaucracy, didn’t hesitate to enter the fray: the Gaullist regime never permitted Marcel Ophuls’s documentary study of life under Vichy, The Sorrow and the Pity, to be released on public television; while Français, si vous saviez (a three-part, eleven-hour documentary by two of Ophuls’s coproducers, Alain de Sedouy and André Harris) nearly failed to receive a license for distribution to theaters.

History hangs heavily over France, but the version taught in the high schools—and extolled in political speeches and government-controlled television programs—is as interesting for what is left out as for what is valued. The political opposition (Communists, Socialists, Radicals) regard many episodes from the past—the Liberation, Algeria, de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958—as so many unrighted wrongs to be kept alive and reexamined at every opportunity.

But the nightmare of nightmares from which the Giscardians are trying desperately to awaken is Vichy. The drama in Ezra Suleiman’s book is that it corroborates many of the findings and implications of Paxton’s book: the Pompidolian and Giscardian regimes, with their gleaming exteriors of highborn bureaucratic and technocratic elites and the neoconservatism within, merely highlight the Vichyite origins of the French administrative state. Between them, Paxton and Suleiman explode the myths of the death of Vichy and the neutral civil service. Vichy France documents in relentless detail the dramatic continuity from Pétain’s regime to the Fourth Republic, in the personnel, style, and functioning of all the major branches of the upper civil service. In the departments of public accounts and finances, 98 percent of bureaucrats in high positions in 1942 still held their jobs by 1946. In the diplomatic corps, nearly two-thirds of the upper civil servants served both Vichy and the Fourth Republic, and the situation was similar in the judiciary. Even in the “purged” prefectural corps, over half of the Vichy administrators were brought back into active service after the Liberation.

However, the continuity went well beyond continuity of personnel. As Paxton wrote, and Suleiman’s evidence supports, the bureaucratic style found new life under Vichy and continued long after: Under Vichy, “[The] experts did not simply administer the state in an emergency…. They entered public office like conquering heroes, with an alacrity and an explicit sense of vindication that show how frustrated they had been behind the scenes in the later Third Republic…. The practice of detaching members of the grands corps [the leading branches of the upper civil service] to other prestigious posts continued at an even higher rate than under the Third Republic” (Paxton, p. 265). Paxton concludes, “The evolution we have seen at Vichy, away from traditionalist values toward administration by experts and planned modernization, conformed with the longer-term trend in French politics and society” (p. 350). “At its height…Vichy was more the creation of experts and professionals than of any other social group, and to judge Vichy is to judge the French elite” (pp. 267-268).

Suleiman carries the argument beyond this point. He shows how both Pétain and de Gaulle, with their contempt for parties and politicians, were able to institutionalize much of their political power in a “neutral” civil service. Indeed the Gaullist party took up where Vichy left off by changing the tradition of conservative politics in France, transforming the provincial-based party of local notables into a centralized, disciplined party which controlled the government and the bureaucracy.

De Gaulle and his successors, Pompidou and Giscard d’Estaing, achieved at least one aim of the nationalist and fascist leagues of the 1880s, 1890s, and 1930s, and much of what Vichy’s “National Revolution” would have accomplished had it had time: a national state allegedly run by administration, not “politics.” This is the state, as Suleiman records, where elected deputies, especially those of the opposition, count for less than civil servants, where any deputy can be overruled and undercut by certain technocrats, where ministers staff their offices with bureaucrats acting as political advisers, where political decisions are administered and disguised as “technical,” and, all the while, where the parties in power pretend not to be political at all. Finally this is the state where the president of the Republic claims to be “above” politics at the very moment that he intervenes in elections.

This is not to smooth over the historical differences among Vichyism, Gaullism, and now Giscardianism, or to say they would all have done the same thing in the same historical situation. The similarity and continuity I refer to here are in the structure and function of the state and the civil service as well as in the long-term evolution of political conservatism in France, not necessarily in political actions, repression, or surveillance. The triumph of de Gaulle and his followers was to refuse to capitulate to the Nazis; while the infamy of the Pétainistes (many of them latter-day supporters of Giscard) is that they did so, and often with conviction. For all their conservatism and theoretical agreement with Vichy in matters of administration, social order, and the like, the early Gaullists bitterly opposed Pétain and risked their lives in the cause of French national integrity.

It is also true that the Fifth Republic, whether Gaullist, Pompidolian, or Giscardian, has permitted a relatively open society and a functioning opposition. In spite of the wiretaps and the unconscionable use of political pressure and (occasionally) political injustice and repression, the Fifth Republic regimes have not governed by terror and outright oppression, certainly not in the way Vichy did. Giscard, for all his technocratic conservatism, has not proved inflexible in the matter of reform. Whether under great pressure or not, his government has inaugurated several important reforms in France—among them the new laws permitting abortion and giving the vote to eighteen-year-olds—which the opposition parties voted for and admit are major changes. Beyond this, Giscard’s plans for penal and economic reform, conservation, and city planning, among other matters, are not without merit (if they are ever put into effect). Several of his reforms, in fact—notably on abortion—have elicited the most vehement criticism from many old-line Gaullists, thus highlighting the paradox of the Gaullists’ current opposition to a man they put into power.

The deaths of General de Gaulle and Georges Pompidou moved Gaullism from maturity and old age into open retirement. The victory of the non-Gaullist Giscard d’Estaing, the technocrat and aristocrat par excellence, over Chaban-Delmas, a hero of the Resistance, is the symbolic culmination of the evolution toward administrative government in France which began in earnest after June 17, 1940. One might say that the Giscard regime is the “highest stage” of Gaullism, at once its offspring and its negation. Giscard was Pompidou’s preferred, if not quite designated, successor. Preferred, in spite of the obvious drawbacks of his being non-Gaullist and a former enthusiast of Algérie française, because he was deemed best able to combat the steadily growing threat of a steadily growing united left. A small but important number of shrewd Gaullists led by Pierre Messmer and Jacques Chirac chose Giscard over their fellow Gaullist, Chaban-Delmas, because they believed only Giscard could defeat François Mitterrand and maintain the conservative character of the Fifth Republic.

The French have a saying that a Bonapartist is simply a moderate conservative who is frightened enough to throw the niceties overboard. The Gaullists who engineered Giscard’s election were willing to sacrifice some of the traditional Gaullist style, and parts of its political mythology as well—for example, the Resistance, Algeria, and the myth of a “left-wing” branch of Gaullism. Giscard’s campaign attracted many old Vichyites, as well as OAS pieds noirs—such supporters by the thousands seemed to creep out from under their rocks. Many figures on the so-called Gaullist left—men like Romain Gary, Edgard Pisani, and Louis Vallon—could not stomach what they saw as Giscard’s “heresy” against traditional Gaullism, and they urged their comrades to vote for Mitterrand.

The conservative Pompidolians won their gamble: the essentials of Fifth Republic Gaullism—the strong centralized executive, the authoritative state administration, the rigid and inequitable social order, the outsized defense budget and arms trade, the fabricated crisis, and lopsided economic growth—are momentarily secure in the polished hands of the man who “betrayed” the General. Under Giscard the distance between the state and the guardians, the emperor and the Praetorians, has virtually ceased to exist.

Even Suleiman hardly anticipated so stunning a confirmation of his central thesis (his book was written before the elections which put Giscard into office). Nowadays the graduates of L’ENA and “Sciences po” do not merely surround ministers, state secretaries, the premier ministre, and the president; in many cases they are the ministers, the state secretaries, the premier ministre (Chirac was in the L’ENA class of 1959), and the president himself (1951). The “eunuchs,” the so-called apolitical civil servants, now run not only the seraglio but the entire palace as well, making the “old days” of the Messmer and Chaban governments (not to mention de Gaulle’s republic) seem quaintly “political” and archaic by comparison.

The old Gaullists, many of whom deeply resent Giscard and his measures, have no choice other than to cower on the sidelines, more or less meekly supporting the regime of technocrats which they launched and dare not desert. The current Chirac government includes sixteen ministers of whom only two of the important ones are Gaullists: the “turncoat” Chirac himself as prime minister, and Yvon Bourges, as minister of finance. Most of the twenty-two state secretaries are not of the UDR Party (i.e., Gaullist). Meanwhile Prince Poniatowski is at the Interior, Count d’Ornano reigns at Industry, the banker Fourcade at Finance, and the president of the Republic, having “democratically” abolished the use of titles at Elysée dinners, claims to be a “natural” descendant of Louis XV. The opposition parties labeled Giscard’s election “Vichy’s Revenge” on Charles de Gaulle, but in fact “Vichy’s Succession” is probably more accurate historically.

The cry to “do something about the civil service” is not new in France. Indeed, as Suleiman shows, it has become nearly a political tradition in its own right, far easier to fulminate against than to change. In any case, in view of what Suleiman shows to be the increasing political domestication of the high civil service by a political party, the primary issue would not seem to be reform of the bureaucracy but who controls it. Certainly the kinds of benign decentralization and fluid pluralism suggested by liberals like Michel Crozier do not satisfy Suleiman.

Where does the United Left and its “Common Program of Government” stand on the question of the bureaucracy? Traditionally the leftists, like the right, see matters as merely a question of purging the key posts and installing “our boys.” Not surprisingly, therefore, the viewpoint of the left-wing Old Guard (i.e., most Fourth Republic Socialists and the Communists, who are encumbered with their own “parallel bureaucracy”) can be summed up by the phrase: “Ôtestoi de là que je m’y mette.” (“Get the hell out so I can move in.”) A younger group of Socialist deputies, some of whom were trained as énarques—among them Pierre Joxe and Jean-Pierre Chevènement (L’ENA ‘65)—believe that decentralizing the bureaucracy and making it less political are the “new” answers. (But not without some self-contradiction, since they would also agree with Suleiman, en principe, that the bureaucracy is fundamentally political.) Their reforms—which would eliminate secrecy in decision-making, exclude political party as a factor in recruitment, require hauts fonctionnaires to resign from their posts and corps before entering the private sector, and regionalize the bureaucracy—basically aim at trying to erase all confusion between, on the one hand, parties and private interests, and, on the other, the civil machinery of the state.

There is no simple solution to the control/reform dilemma. Although I find Suleiman’s book both persuasive and brilliant, it should not be used simply as a weapon by left-wing leaders who mainly want to “take over the bureaucracy with our own boys” and who in fact have not thought much about these subtle questions. Suleiman’s book makes it clear that no one will isolate the bureaucrats from political reality just by decentralizing the civil service. Some of the more perceptive French analysts therefore ask: Why not accept that all bureaucracy is to some extent political and organize it differently, more democratically? As with the Catholic Church in revolutionary France, serious changes might start when the discontented and radical lower clergy are brought into the ecclesiastical governing bodies previously dominated by the bishops.

The numerous lower cadres of the French civil service show signs of being increasingly angry, demoralized, aware of themselves as a class. A reform project which would allow them, or their elected spokesmen, to participate seriously in decisions at the highest levels of the administration would overturn the structural as well as the political status quo in the French bureaucracy, and could lead to a civil service far more sensitive to social needs. Such a reform would not only significantly improve the lot of 1.5 million salaried employees in France but would prevent higher officials—be they administrative or governmental, left or right—from running the vast civil machinery of the state entirely in their own interests.

So far-reaching a reform is certainly utopian and it would be hardly less so if the left came to power, although some of the younger and more incisive socialists have begun to think along such lines. The great temptation for any government, particularly a newly arrived and insecure Popular Front, is to occupy the “heights” and reach into the pork barrel. Such a reform as this would require great internal unity, long tenure in office, vast and enduring popular support, and, hardest of all, considerable self-denial for left-wing political leaders—none of which is in sight. This will not surprise the readers of Suleiman’s book, the most perceptive analysis we have both of the underlying reality of French political life and the difficulties of changing it.

  1. *

    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.