The Tradition and Practice of French Public Services

January 2, 2013

Talks & Interviews

Philippe Thiebaud

Philippe Thiebaud, Ambassador of France to Pakistan, was invited by the CPPG to deliver a talk on “The Tradition and Practice of French Public Services” on October 8, 2012.

His Excellency Mr. Philippe Thiebaud began with a detailed description of the structure of the French government and civil service. The government of France was half presidential and half parliamentary. While the president was directly elected by the people for five years, it was he who designated a prime minister, responsible for the parliament and the government. This system was established in 1958 by General De Gaulle with the goal to discontinue with the power imbalance and instability of a parliamentary system and was thus premised on the need for a stable system of government through rationalization of the parliamentary process. Thus, the French system incorporated some features of the American system with the president having legitimacy as the premier representative of the people, while retaining elements of the parliamentary system whereby the prime minister implemented policies and was answerable to the parliament constituting the senate and national assembly. The members of the national assembly were directly elected by the people while the senate was indirectly elected by representatives of the local governments and the provinces.

France was a welfare state where the government was responsible for generating employment opportunities for the public. Thus, it used to have a very large public sector with more than five million, about 20% of the population employed including the civil service, local government bodies, education, and health etc. There was no distinction between civil servants and other public sector employees and a public statute oversaw the remuneration and job description for all people employed by the state. Further, there were three primary features of public service in France: first, a statutory contract which provided work protection to public sector employees; second, a meritocratic system whereby rules applied equally to all, and government officials and the public alike needed to follow procedures and channels to interact with a specific government servant; and lastly, public sector was divided into levels A (postgraduate), B (graduate), C (high school), D (middle school) and public servants were placed in these levels according to the qualification. The selection criterion was uniform with each public entity responsible for selecting its own employees. The only exception though was the École Nationale d’administration (National School of Administration), which was created to train top civil administrators and those, who would go on to serve as presidents and prime ministers. The school selected only a limited number of people (80-100 a year), who were appointed at top positions in the government.

Discussing the evolution of the public sector, Ambassador Thiebaud stated that the current system was established after the Second World War and continued to develop till the 1990s. With time, concerns were raised which led to its transformation. For example, when it was realized that the system was too rigid, certain management policies hitherto specific to the private sector were incorporated to make the administration more efficient and cost effective. Furthermore, with the establishment of the European Union (EU), France had to streamline competitive practices, thus opening up some public entities to competition and public-private partnership which led to the dismantlement of the huge public sector. Resultantly a number of public entities were privatized. The public sector which originally employed 5 million people shrunk to 2.5 million. It decreased further as successive governments introduced a rule to recruit one civil servant for every two retiring. Another outcome was a greater decentralization of power to the local and provincial governments which bore resemblance to the 18th Amendment to the constitution of Pakistan, he remarked.

He then analyzed the public sector in the context of the European financial crisis. As countries in the EU experienced stunted growth and other economic and social repercussions, the crisis gave rise to questions like: Should the central government streamline its focus only towards core issues like defense, security, justice and foreign affairs? Was it affordable to sustain a large comprehensive welfare system requiring large amounts of government spending on social security? Was there a need to keep a statute which provided civil servants with a guarantee of employment, pension, other protections and securities or should there be a unification of policies across private and public sectors? France still stood at the crossroad as other countries in the EU had dealt with these questions in different ways with some streamlining their public sector. The interesting aspect was that countries like Germany and France with large public sectors had actually performed better during the European financial crisis because a large public sector helped create a buffer between the people and the economy so that they did not feel the brunt of the economic crisis. However, the question of what kind of a public sector France should have could not be judged in seclusion and had to include its impact on fiscal policy. Thus, a harmonization of fiscal policy between governments in the EU would lead to a certain level of harmonization of public sector structures. Lastly in comparison with Pakistan, he pointed out the glaring difference in tax to GDP ratio. While in Pakistan taxes constituted 8-10% of the GDP, in France this stood at 47-48%, consequently allowing huge spending in social welfare in France.

“…certain management policies hitherto specific to the private sector were incorporated to make the administration more efficient and cost effective.”

Subsequent to the talk, a question answer session was held. Replying to a question regarding France’s political system, the Ambassador explained that Europe had two basic political backgrounds, a British like parliamentary system and a Bonaparte-like centralized system. The French government under De Gaulle made a compromise between these traditions with France having a de facto presidential system in which the president took most decisions. Thus many people still perceived it as a monarchist vision. However the French government did try to bring all stakeholders on board before formulating policies and large forums were held to address issues like the environment, social welfare, etc.

“…in Pakistan taxes constituted 8-10% of the GDP, in France this stood at 47-48%, consequently allowing huge spending in social welfare in France”

Responding to another question regarding the system of recruitment, selection and pay scale of the civil service, he stated that all civil servants were selected through a transparent and neutral examination process for a limited number of positions comprising 98% of the total while exceptions were made for few positions according to need. While previously pay scales had been uniform, it was only after the incorporation of private sector management policies that differentiation had set in as there was now room for performance based allowances.

Responding to a question on the local government system, he explained that the system of local government bodies went back to the French Revolution in which 36,000 local bodies were carved. The same structure existed today and was the largest in Europe. While some had begun questioning the need to have such a large local government system, many preferred it because it provided them an interlocutor at the government level.

Giving a final comment on EU and the financial crisis, Ambassador Thiebaud stated that economic integration demanded an integrated policy and the Euro system still required more time to become entrenched and strong. UK on the other hand being outside the European zone had an independent fiscal and monetary policy which made it easier to put in place certain mechanisms to insulate itself from the crisis.