Where you stand is where you sit: What is the impact of institutional embeddednesses for PA? – Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans

Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans –IEP Toulouse, France


France is a country worthy of comparative observation as one of the “birthplaces” of bureaucracy, competitive examination, and the civil service.  It is also a country where the political and administrative leaders of a ruling government have claimed with more success than elsewhere to have a tutelary relationship with society and an interventionist relationship with the economy.  This means that since the Revolution and the Empire, the public authorities have occupied an important position here.  As a result, a great deal has been written about them since the early 19th century, but with an unusual division between the work of two types of author.

On one hand, following the example of what has happened in other countries that opted for an administrative law distinct and deviating from ordinary law, the body of public law lecturers have, over the decades, produced a rich corpus of “legal doctrine” (theory of public service, etc.) But this doctrine, formed in the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries, has most logically been less open to innovation since 1945.

At the same time, since the 19th century in the wake of certain pioneers such as Alexandre-François Vivien, the top civil servants themselves, have, under the name of “administrative studies”, or “administrative science”, produced their own works, reviews, and reflections on the State in general and the public administrations in particular.  This is no doubt the most remarkable feature of the French situation: the senior civil service, with its famous “major competitions” and “great bodies” belongs to the “elites of the Republic” much more than in comparable countries. This administrative elite, traditionally peopled with a mixture of dynasties of the grande bourgeoisie of the State and brilliant products of the teaching system with the qualities to become intellectuals, has always had greater social status and influence in France than have university teachers, which is the opposite of the traditional situations in Germany, Italy, or even the United States. Thus the generations of top French officials have considered that they have full authority to develop their own views of public administrations and their successive reforms. In every generation until the present day – for this tradition is self-perpetuating – the senior civil service has thus produced from its own ranks “organic intellectuals” (in the sense of Gramsci) who have taken the lead in the legitimate discussion of the State. This enterprise of symbolic domination was greatly boosted by the creation in 1871, to counter the model of the Paris Law Faculty, which was considered too “academic” and mono-disciplinary, of a selective, autonomous institute to train a political and administrative elite, the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, which in 1945 became the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris, better known as “Sciences Po”.  The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) was created in 1945 as an extension to Sciences Po, and was at first closely linked with it.  Now, no “academic” administrative science teaching body was ever set up at Sciences Po and ENA, contrary to the case of the great American universities from the beginning of the 20th century (see, for example, the case of Woodrow Wilson). On the contrary, it was senior civil servants, both practitioners and “organic intellectuals” who found in these two institutions a platform for proposing, promoting and publishing their own endogenous analysis of the dynamics of the French public administration. The heritage of this history can still be perceived today in the fact, for example, that the French section of IISA, the Institut Français des Sciences Administratives (IFSA) is located at the Conseil Etat under the authority of senior civil servants.

As a result, when political science as a discipline was formed, partly at “Sciences Po” and partly in the law faculties, it respected the domination of the senior civil servants themselves over administrative studies and took an interest in other subjects. Further still, when political science became fully autonomous in the 1970s due to a break with public law, French politicists and politologists turned away from the subject of the administration, cast aside like an “old sock” – with the notable exception of original research headed by Jacques Chevallier and his associates under the name “Administrative Science”.

On the other hand, during the years from 1960 – 1970, it appeared that the administrations and their employees were the subject of research work in Sociology, from two totally different perspectives: on one hand, “organisational sociology” was developed, often studying public bureaucracies and looking into their specific functioning through an approach by the strategies of individuals.  On the other hand, sociologists (and some politicists as well) dedicated themselves to the sociology / sociography of the groups and bodies populating and dominating the administrations, often within the framework of a wider sociology of the French elites.

In those same years, the main disciplines of note were History of Law and History, where some colleagues were working and leading work on the history of the administration, while in Management Sciences, “public management” French-style, in spite of certain initiatives at the University, was unable to come up to strength because of our academic traditions and the monopolisation by the administrative schools, peopled with practitioners in the training of high-ranking officials, where “public management” was not yet in vogue, unlike the case of the other OECD countries.

So much so that the 1980s and the early 1990s saw the French intellectual landscape, in particular the burgeoning political sciences, being rather “forgetful of the public administration” (a happy turn of phrase by Françoise Dreyfus).  At the same time, the analysis of public policies developed, enquiring, it is true, into the sphere of public administration, but focusing on its outputs and outcomes, whether specific or cognitive-normative.

In all, therefore, fifteen years ago one could observe this “French paradox” of a country with strong, prestigious administrations but lacking in research into public administration.

Since then, the landscape has changed considerably, and in more than one discipline.  In political sciences and sociology first of all (disciplines firmly interlinked in France), a set of converging factors, combining the effects of the strong rise in the analysis of public policies and/or in the sociology of public action which, in the case of “the State in action” and “specifically” has shown how the clumsy Gulliver of competing administrative departments and rival bodies, the expansion of political sociology to a vast sociology of the institutions, and the interest raised by France moving into an era of administrative reform, have enabled the recent flourishing of a whole range of research work where the study of the administrations and the administrators at the various “levels of government” (Europe, the State, territories) is back on the scientific agenda.

Beyond their clearly understandable variety, the common factor of these researchers looking into the worlds of administration is that, due to their intellectual training, their university roots, their methods of research, their analysis frameworks, references and perspectives, they belong to the social sciences; in other words they are divorced from the juridical approach of the institutions. The politicist study of the public administrations is thus developing in the area linking the sociology of the participants and groups of participants, the sociology of the institutions, the sociology of work and the sociology of public action, as a modest complement which may build new bridges between these specialities whose importance is clearly established. This recent flourishing of research into the administrative institutions is also set against the background of the increasing return of interest in this discipline for the processes, activities, knowledge and instruments of government, always politically and administratively inseparable.

As a result, over the last fifteen years, many doctorate theses, articles, books, and collective works were produced in all the Instituts d’Etudes Politiques de France  (one in Paris and eight in the regions) and in most of the universities which have political science research centres. This burgeoning has also been recognised by the institutions, with the creation in 2007 by the Association Française de Science Politique  (AFSP) of a permanent working group entitled “Science politique comparée des administrations”  (SPCA).

At the same time, 19th and 20th Century History shows a concomitant development of research into the public administrations and their administrators since the 1990s can be seen in .   As for Management Sciences, since the 1990s, certain schools and colleges here (for example the Institut de Management Public & Gouvernance  Territoriale – IMPGT  – in Aix-en-Provence) have been paying increasing attention to the issues of analysing the evolution of the continuously reforming public administrations.

To conclude, it is therefore clear that in the land of public administration par excellence, research into this subject has finally found its feet and is growing strongly, even though as a whole it remains modest in comparison with the situation seen in many comparable great European countries. Now nobody has any doubts as to its relevance to understanding and explaining changes in contemporary France and the government of the country, and this excellent work must be continued by opening up further to European and international comparative study.

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