How effectively does France’s government develop strategic policy solutions and foster dialogue in the process?
The Management Index assesses a country’s capacity for reform. Three categories examine the ability to plan and implement policies. Accountability assesses the extent to which non-executive actors are included in the political process.
In lieu of the overarching advisory agencies used for strategic planning in the immediate post-war era, governments now revert to special ad hoc commissions or personal advisers. This implies the danger that opportunism may prevail over real strategic planning. For instance, after his election, President Sarkozy put in place dozens of such committees, the most ambitious being the Attali committee (named after Jacque Attali, a former chief adviser of President Mitterrand), which reviewed all impediments and/or potentialities for growth in the forthcoming years. The report, published in January 2008, suggested several hundred reform measures; several of them were put in place fully or in part.
In contrast to some other European countries, the French government does not rely much on academics. Outstanding nongovernmental academics may be chosen to sit in the numerous national reflection councils on various policy fields (integration, education, etc.), and thus help to formulate guidelines for public action. But their influence is not comparable to what can be found in many other political settings. The high civil service tends to consider itself self-sufficient. It is only in rare occasions that the government calls in academics, either because they are close to the administrators in power or because there is no real expertise within the central administration. The council of economic advisors set up by Lionel Jospin when he was prime minister never gained strong influence on economic or budgetary policies, for instance. This situation might be explained by the tradition of intellectuals refusing to be associated with power and adopting a critical attitude vis-à-vis political authorities.
The hierarchical organization of government gives the prime minister the possibility of modifying draft bills from ministers. In important cases, or even continuously, as is the case under President Nicolas Sarkozy, this steering function is situated in the President’s Office.
The prime minster appoints advisors from all ministries as policy advisors in a given sector. All ministerial domains are covered. For the time of their appointment these civil servants are accountable to the prime minister. With a smaller but powerful team, the President’s Office does the same. Several hundreds of people are involved in the steering, checking, controlling and advising functions. However, quite often, the issues at stake are not technical but of a political/corporatist nature. Sometimes conflicts are triggered by substantive issues but in many instances the crucial questions are related to the division of competences and power. The Ministry of Finance is a crucial player as it gives its very powerful opinion on every matter under discussion. The main but limited exception to that Prime Minister’s Office‘s influence is found when influential leaders of minority parties of the coalition can use their political leverage. Another exception is related to the close relationship that a minister might have with the president. In that situation, in case of conflict between the Prime Minister’s Office and a line minister, a kind of appeal procedure to the president puts the prime minister in an awkward position as the president might choose to support the line minister‘s view over the prime minister’s opinion.
The prime minister (or the president, as he is the real head of the executive and presides over the weekly cabinet meetings) can, for any reason, return materials to ministers for reconsideration. He also can decide to postpone or cancel the project.
Line ministers have to inform the prime minister of all their projects. Not only the reforms are prepared under the control of the Prime Minister’s/President’s Offices but media communication and public opinion has to be strictly coordinated under the supervision of the prime minister’s/president‘s staff. Most important sectoral reforms are actually announced by the prime minister or the president and not by the minister.
Although numerous – and sometimes institutionalized – interministerial councils and committees exist, they usually are not used to prepare legislation. Instead, they intervene at a somewhat late stage of the decision process. French governments are less collegial and strongly hierarchical; the prime minister (or the president) acts as arbiter and tends to centralize dossiers. This leads to a lack of collegiality and of “horizontal” coordination deplored by some inside actors, and individual ministers may be tempted to seek prime ministerial or presidential arbitration rather than compromise with their colleagues.
Cabinet meetings (in France, the Council of Ministers chaired by the president) are prepared by the secretary-general of the President’s Office and by the secretary-general of the Prime Minister’s Office. These two secretaries are usually very senior civil servants who have extensive knowledge and experience of public administration and enjoy the confidence of the president and of the prime minister. Both men are considered as being more powerful than line ministers as they benefit indirectly from the legal and political delegation of their respective heads. Their importance can be judged from the fact that several former secretaries-general of the president have become ministers or even prime minister. The whole preparation of the meetings is made by high civil servants but obviously under the strict guidance of the prime minister.
Coordination is a matter for the Prime Minister’s or the President’s Offices. Line ministry civil servants have to take into account the draft proposals from other ministries but coordination is not the main concern in most cases. Defense of line ministries’ prerogatives is often the main issue. Fights and conflicts are frequent (even if most of the time they do not come to the fore). In the most difficult cases (when ministers back up strongly the positions of their respective civil servants), the prime minister has to step in and settle the matter.
In addition to formal coordination meetings, informal coordination is often crucial. One “invisible” facilitator stems from the fact that at least some members of the political staff (the so-called cabinet du ministre) in all ministries come from a dominant ministry (e.g., finance) or even more importantly from the old-boy network of elite universities (grandes écoles). Personal links and connections are of great help in overcoming conflicts related to role positions. Other informal meetings include, for instance, the interventions of majority party leaders of the two assemblies or the weekly “breakfast” between the president, the prime minister and other politicians or high civil servants involved in the matter under discussion.
The practice of RIA has been developed since 1995, notably under the supervision of the Prime Minister’s Office. Furthermore, the minister of finance systematically assesses the impact of draft proposals under discussion, usually acting as a brake on many proposals. Line ministries do the same but in the opposite direction, playing the advocates of the bill under discussion. A further assessment is provided by the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) whose advice is required by the constitution for all government draft bills and decrees. This assessment is supposed to be purely legalistic but the council might also consider other dimensions such as the social, financial or international impact of a proposed measure.
Existing studies analyzing the impact of RIA nonetheless indicate some problems. Although the initial skepticism of administrative bodies toward RIA has been overcome, the content of assessments has been too general and often tended to justify the need for action rather than try a critical, and well-grounded, assessment; in addition, there are few international comparisons when examining possible alternatives.
The assessments are conducted by stakeholders with a perspective of fighting for or against the policy measure. Thus, in general it has little to do with a rational exercise.
A formal requirement for a need analysis does not exist in France. Objections over the need for legislation might come from the Prime Minister’s Office or from the Council of State (objections coming from the opposition, the media or pressure groups are not considered here). Once the decision to go ahead is taken by the government nothing - except a political decision - might stop the process and challenge the usefulness of the proposed reform. It is quite common that bills are passed under emergency procedures to address public demands triggered by sudden events, strong emotions or public protest. The legislation is often useless and implementation decrees never adopted. Its only objective is to send a message to the media and inform public opinion. In many instances, the most objective analysis about the purpose and need of certain legislation is made ex-post by the Council of State or the Court of Accounts (Cour des Comptes) to deplore the useless character or the emptiness of some regulations.
The evaluations available for RIA in France have stressed the lack of critical analysis and the search for alternatives, which seem linked to the fact that RIA is realized by the administration concerned and that there is no counter expertise. Recently, impact studies have gained in influence. In 2006, a provisional Prime Minister’s Office guideline for RIA procedures advised systematic research for alternative options. These options are often discussed within expert committee meetings or sometimes in legislative committees. But in most cases it is not a rational, systematic analysis offering alternatives and options with respective advantages and drawbacks.
The traditional distrust regarding “lobbies” which are not seen as legitimate political actors, and the difficult social relations in France that hinder social dialogue have limited the capacity of governments to seamlessly or successfully find avenues of cooperation. Corporatism in France has had a rather limited impact, and the temptation to govern “top-down,” by ukase, has always been strong. But severe, repeated conflicts and protest movements have raised and often successfully have vetoed governmental action. This is a clear hint that government has not succeeded in assessing the political power, the consideration and cooperation of civil society and its actors.
While the debate on necessary consultation between government and economic and social actors (especially concerning social partnership between capital and labor unions) goes back to 1969, it has seldom been followed by consequent action. However, in recent years, governments seek consultation of interest groups more systematically, and theses practices have been partly made into legal obligations. Since 2007, President Sarkozy has launched several consultation rounds, trying to involve interest groups in the preparation of reform bills. Moreover, the rules of social negotiations have been modernized to encourage social contracts between employers and trade unions. But, despite the awareness of the necessity of installing regular consultation procedures, governmental practice has changed only gradually.
The need for strong discipline is imposed on the French government as there is nothing like a coalition government. Coordination of government action and communication is assured in a hierarchical manner. The president is the effective chief of government; both the prime minister and all other ministers are nominated by the president and are dependent on him. In practice, the presidential office monitors the action of the government regularly (and under President Sarkozy, very closely). The prime minister and the president impose tight controls and ministers are expected to be in line with their guidance. The main rationale is to avoid divisions or confusion that can be exploited by the media. But leaks by ministers themselves can bring to the fore internal contradictions between ministers or their bureaucracies. President Sarkozy has called off several ministers whose public communication on planned projects did not suit him. When a president is less directing, coordination is assured by the prime minister who is able to manage possible conflicts between ministers.
The government is efficient in implementing its program as it can rely on a relatively disciplined cabinet and an obedient majority, while other veto actors are basically absent. The question if government policies are effective is another matter. There is a growing tendency to privilege communication over substantive policy and to believe that a reform is in place when a law is passed. This phenomenon is illustrated by the recurrence of legislation on the same topics. For instance, to address the concerns of the population over law and order issues, there have been a series of new laws passed aiming to strengthen police controls, crime penalties and so on. The same can be said for fiscal policies, which are characterized by a high rate of instability.
Compliance by ministers if assessed comparatively is rather good as a minister can be dismissed at any time and without explanation. In the French majority system and in the absence of real coalition governments, the ministers, nominated by the president, are largely assigned to him. Together with the effective hierarchical steering of governmental action, ministers have strong incentives to implement the government’s program, following the guidelines produced by the president and the prime minister. In addition, contrary to countries such as Italy or Germany where the smaller components of a government coalition might be tempted to blackmail the dominant party, no such bargaining capacity is available to the minority in France.
Compliance by the administration is a more complex matter. As underlined before, the belief that once approved a reform is implemented is constantly contradicted by the facts, namely by the lasting French tradition to fight reforms once they have been passed. For instance, a minister who or an administration that has been forced to swallow a certain reform measure can jeopardize its application by not accepting or even slowing down the implementation process or by publishing a circular which restricts the interpretation of the law. The Ministry of Finance is particularity good at playing this game to minimize the financial impact of policies pushed by line ministries.
The monitoring of line ministries is usually good but considerable variations exist depending on:
• the strength of the prime minister;
• the relationship of the minister with the president;
• the political position of the minister within the majority or as a local notable.
Most of the time ministries have only two reliable instruments to push agencies in the direction they wish: the appointment of the agency head and the budget. But in many cases it can be observed that these two managerial tools are efficient only on the surface. A good example is the National Research Center (CNRS), where researchers have eluded all attempts to reform the agency. Despite the many criticisms, reforms, alternating of budget cuts and budget increases as instruments of punishment or reward, the agency remains fundamentally unchanged.
The situation of subnational government is rather paradoxical. On the one hand, thanks to the fact that most national elites (parliamentarians) are also elected local officials, subnational authorities are among the most powerful “pressure groups”; and because of this crucial position within the political system they have been able to secure extremely favorable global subsidies from the central government without strings attached. On the other hand, the central authorities have taken advantage of the “appetite” of local and regional governments for new competences by transferring new tasks and policies without fully financing these extra duties. As the central government was managing these sectors badly in most cases due to the lack of resources and to excessive centralization, the transfers had a huge impact on local finances and on manpower in communes, departments and regions. The problems have been further exacerbated by the piecemeal and ad hoc reforms of local taxes, such as the elimination of the local business tax (taxe professionnelle). While considered a bad tax by nearly everybody, it was one of the main genuine local financial resources. Its elimination, adopted in 2009, has meant further dependency of local authorities on the central government; even if the loss of revenue will be compensated by national state allocations, local authorities consider this shift a menace to local financial autonomy.
The allocation of powers to subnational governments is rather loose, and there is neither a clear hierarchy between the three levels of decentralized government (regions, departments, local level) nor a clear-cut division of competences. The effect has often been that the three subnational levels intervene, each in its own way, in the same policy field. The government has promised a decentralization reform to clarify and to simplify decentralized competences and to reshape the territorial administrative landscape, but the bill that passed in 2009 is rather moderate; every real change would be subject to strong opposition.
Some instances of recentralization have occurred by fiscal or administrative means: tax reforms limiting local financial autonomy; new regulations in the name of territorial cohesion; and mixed financing on regional infrastructure investments, which sets up deliberations between central and regional authorities and gives the state the possibility of influencing regional choices. But in spite of the usual stereotypes about French hyper-centralization, it is fair to say that subnational government enjoys a lot of freedom of maneuver. Legally they are subordinate. Politically, the influence of local elites in parliament and in particular in the Senate is decisive.
“National cohesion” is seen as a major target by all actors. This is the basis for a large number of national standards and rules that canalize local and regional policies. National standards are fixed by national regulations and guaranteed by the constitutional and administrative courts. Local authorities have very little regulatory power and prefects as well as citizens might challenge local measures or policies which would infringe their rights to equal treatment on the entire national territory. These standards are enforced legally by the administrative courts, politically through financial subsidies and incentives, and professionally through the powerful field administrations of the state which work very closely with the local sub-units.
Government has effectively adapted its structures to meet the impact of European integration and the rise of multilevel governance, which increases the necessity of interministerial coordination. A coordination secretariat under the authority of the prime minister, the SGAE (secrétariat général des affaires européennes) bears responsibility for daily coordination; conflicts are arbitrated by the prime minister’s senior civil servants, with only serious conflicts by the prime minister or the president himself. In 2005, an interministerial committee was founded to coordinate the French position in EU councils. It meets monthly under the authority of the prime minister. The ministers of foreign affairs, Europe, finance and economy are regular participants, while other ministers partake in the meetings according to the agenda treated.
France plays an active role in international coordination of joint reform initiatives. There is a high awareness of the fact that France should actively influence EU policy formation and international cooperation, and French governments have been active (yet not always successful) in setting agendas, proposing new initiatives or reforms.
However, the French government often takes positions too much in line with French interests only and does not present its initiatives in a way that would offer them as platforms on which support and consensus can be built. This limits the government’s success in steering or influencing decision-making at the European level. In other cases, the apparent success resulting from strong impetus and active political mobilization is only a short-term victory. The success and immediate failure of the Mediterranean Union is a case in point.
There is no systematic review of structures except from time to time, reports are issued from the Council of State or from the Court of Accounts. Ad hoc reports on specific authorities or agencies are also produced by internal controlling structures (corps de contrôle) or external committees at the request of the government. The most ambitious recent attempt has been the general assessment of public policies launched in 2007 which foresees an assessment of all policies and institutions to rationalize their makeup and to find savings. The results of such a grand project cannot be judged as the implementation of the measures will continue until 2012. In the meantime, however, ministerial portfolios and their respective administrations are still organized on a purely political basis without managerial consideration (e.g., the creation of a ministry for sustainable development in 2007). Divisions and mergers of tasks and services are still fixed by short-term and opportunistic considerations.
In 2008, the French constitution was substantially revised, one of the most encompassing constitutional reforms in 40 years. One of the main elements of the reform was a strengthening of parliament. For example, the government will not be able to control the parliamentary agenda alone anymore. In addition, the possibility for the people to initiate a referendum has been introduced. It is obviously too early to assess how these changes affect the strategic capacity of the government, however. On the one hand, it could be argued that these changes may actually reduce the government’s strategic capacity because it might have to make more compromises with parliament and potential initiators of referenda. On the other hand, this pressure of parliament and the public might also lead to a more long-term perspective in policy-making.
Apart from the constitutional reform, the government tries to improve its strategic capacity by changing institutional arrangements below the constitutional level. One example concerns the current reforms following the general assessment of public policies mentioned above. But very often, the government is obliged to use very unsophisticated tools, such as cutting jobs across the board without distinction between services and sectors, such as the decision to replace only one position out of two left by retiring civil servants, a policy which has been pursued since 2008.
Political interest and participation have been in decline in the last decades. It is too early to assess the high degree of participation observed in the 2007 presidential election. On important matters (e.g., the referendum on the EU constitutional treaty in 2004, or political and social conflicts on important government reforms), political interest can be very high; but, in these cases, the simplification of the choice (for or against) favors polarization, which means that ideological and populist arguments dominate the debate, marginalizing more precise considerations on the impact of policies.
Citizens can be seen as poorly informed as the reform agenda since 2007 has been very complicated and as most people only get their information from television. Television stations devote very little time to any topic and tend more and more to prefer talk shows where people express their views rather than using prime-time hours for programming topics seen as unattractive to large audiences. Information follows mobilization, rather than the other way around. It is rather common that information is provided once a group of citizens or political activists have succeeded in attracting media attention. In addition, information is rather biased, both on the side of government and of the opposition, including trade unions. Finally, rumors, false news, media buzz make very difficult any process of disseminating fair and transparent information.
Parliamentary committees can usually obtain all the documents they request. There are cases of “sensitive” information when the government can invoke the necessity of protecting intelligence or defense secrets and refuse to release documents, however. It might be tempting for governments in some borderline cases to use or abuse this option. Furthermore, legislative committees are very large, although the constitutional reform of 2008 expanded the maximum number of regular committees from six to eight. Most parliamentarians prefer their local commitments to their national duties and do not invest much time in committee work. With some exceptions, there is no strong tradition of inquiry and investigation. Given the fact that the eight regular committees cover a large range of policy fields, the effective document and information seeking role lies within specific instruments that bypass the constitutional rule limiting the number of committees: special “information missions” and permanent parliamentary “delegations,” parliamentary evaluation offices, and so on. They are able to mobilize, and to discuss, specific information and documents.
The committees are able to summon ministers for hearings, and frequently make use of this right. In exceptional cases, ministers can refuse to attend. Given the supremacy and the discipline of the majority party in parliament during the Fifth Republic, such a refusal does not entail serious consequences.
There is no coincidence between the structures of ministries and those of parliamentary committees. The number of parliamentary committees is limited to eight (six until the constitutional reform in 2008) while there are 25-30 ministries. This rule was meant as, and resulted in, a limitation of deputies’ power to follow and control closely and precisely each ministry’s activity. But, in the last decades, new institutional arrangements have been set up, which sidestep these limits and lead to new sorts of committees, whether permanent or not, on specific questions.
The Court of Accounts (Cour de Comptes) is accountable to parliament which might require any auditing, report or enquiry it needs. This is a big change in contrast with the past when the court was perceived mainly as a controlling institution at the service of the executive. The 2008 constitutional reform has increased the court’s role, but it remains to be seen how the parliament and the court itself will make use of these new opportunities.
Parliament has no ombudsman office, but members of parliament play an active role, as action by citizens has to be channeled though the mediation of MPs. Traditionally, the French parliament played a decisive role in mediating between individuals and the administration in cases of excessive delays, red tape or difficult cases. This role was very much related to MPs’ local involvement and allowed for an individualistic and particularistic relationship with the citizen-voter. Instead of parliament, government has an ombudsman (“Médiateur de la République”) who is left the cases that MPs are not able to solve.
Mass media, notably the new morning (radio) and evening programs, offer quality information concerning government decisions. Other types of programs prefer political debates or infotainment and prominent personalities who are given a platform. Despite the existence of programs focusing on societal themes or new challenges, there is a lack of high-quality background programs, which would analyze and explain the impact of government decisions. Entertainment attracts more audience numbers and by way of consequence more publicity, especially in the private sector. While this phenomenon is less marked on public channels, it is also noticeable and in line with the decline in interest for politics and public affairs observed in many countries.
Parties and leaders have failed in explaining the challenges of the present and of the future to the electorate. Preference for short-term solutions, postponement of difficult decisions and a relative indifference to the fate of future generations are the characteristics of most political programs. The crude fact that the national budget has been in deficit for the past 30 years is telling. This being said, the two major governing parties since 1981, the Socialist Party (PS) and the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), have improved their focus on plausibility and coherence. When they are in opposition, they tend to give way to populist propositions, but the financial coherence of programs proposed is now more often publicly discussed on the basis of independent expert calculations.
Associations do not play a major part in the formulation of policy proposals in France. In general, they have limited organizational, analytical or expertise power, which would allow them to influence the debate in this respect. Only in some cases are more specialized associations in the social or environmental field (or the agricultural associations) able to mobilize their specific experience in the form of policy proposals that may be adopted or taken into consideration by parliament and government. But, in general, the French political culture and tradition means that governments tend to have “arms-length” relationships toward associations, seen as “lobbies” proclaiming egoistic interest, opposed to government and parliament which are legitimized to express the “general will.” This has led to a rather fragmented, weakly organized, sometimes split (e.g., the trade unions) association system, which remains confined to a secondary role in the process of policy formulation dominated by executive power and very often “statist” expertise. In consequence, associations may prefer public protest, polarization and lobbying instead of using specialized expertise.
The number of, and membership in, non-business associations has been increasing in the past decades. If the phenomenon of factual dependency on financial support of public authorities exists, especially at the local level, there are non-economic associations combining pluralistic approaches, long-term perspectives and a public perspective. This can be seen in fields such as urban policy (where national programs and local public actors rely on the expertise and the commitment of associations dealing with local social difficulties), environmental policy or social policy (aid to people with different social problems or handicaps). This being said, not all associations are able to exert a real influence on policy-making except by providing new ideas and concepts which are taken up from time to time by politicians. Since 2007, President Sarkozy has nominated representatives of civil society associations into government or high public responsibilities but this practice has been driven far more by tactical motives than by a real will to integrate associational expertise in governmental policy.
Governments in charge
SGI 2011 review period (May 2008 to April 2010) is outlined. Shown are: Prime minister or president, type of government, and ruling parties. Asterisks indicate national parliamentary or presidential elections.
Country scores and texts were produced by the country coordinator, based on comprehensive assessments by two country experts.
Prof. Reimut Zohlnhöfer University of Bamberg
Prof. Yves Mény European University Institute, Florence