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The French Brief - Will the Pandemic Change the French State?

The French Brief - Will the Pandemic Change the French State?
 Nicolas Bauquet
Public Transformation expert

France is back to business, and public policy. After a few months on the brink of a national disaster, and a lockdown that managed to bring the pandemic under some control, the French President Emmanuel Macron and his new Prime Minister, Jean Castex, are busy fulfilling old and new promises. On top of their to-do list sits the hefty task of fighting the disastrous consequences of the health crisis on the economy, with unemployment surging at record levels. While it was "only" 8.4% last January, unemployment is due to reach 11% at the end of the year.

But beyond this economic crisis, something else has been weighing on the minds of the French elite. The health crisis has cast a shadow not only on the future of the country, but on the State itself, and on its ability to lead the nation through difficult times. France is a country where public expenditure was above 56% of GDP before the crisis, where the State is at the heart of national identity and of the social fabric, and where the aristocracy of public servants still considers itself as the embodiment of French excellence. In this context, the shortcomings revealed during the most terrible weeks of the pandemic have been a shock, and triggered a period of serious soul searching. Wasn’t France supposed to have "the best healthcare system in the world"? Above all, wasn’t it supposed to have a State able to successfully manage the most dangerous of crises ? 

The State mirrored in the crisis 

All in all, President Macron and his then-Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, managed to lead the country through the most dangerous moments of the pandemic, despite a lack of preparation that was to some degree imputable to previous governments. A series of coronavirus "superspreading" events also made the health crisis much more critical than in other European countries, hitting particularly hard in the East of the country, and the Paris region. Nevertheless, the crisis has exposed a series of deficiencies in the most critical areas of crisis management - the first one being the lack of a functioning crisis management framework. There were overlaps in several crisis units and a lack of clear responsibilities for each critical area, which led to striking disorganization. This stood in obvious contrast to the clear and reassuring response that the State had displayed both during the financial crisis of 2008, and the Paris attacks in November 2015. 

The State tried to prove it could solve everything by itself, instead of calling businesses, NGOs or citizens to the rescue.

Centralization is a traditional feature of French public policy. Nonetheless, the pandemic highlighted the disconnect between the small group of decision makers at the top, and the thousands of people struggling to manage the health crisis at every level - scrambling to find protective equipment for their workers, or to communicate efficiently inside their organizations, be that private businesses or local governments. 

Taken off guard by the pandemic, the "reptilian brain" of the State tried to prove it could solve everything by itself, instead of calling businesses, NGOs or citizens to the rescue. In some instances, it was indeed able to prove its ability to work day and night to make the impossible possible. The reorganization of hospitals to accommodate the wave of the patients needing life support was a case in point. But for the vast majority of those struggling on the ground, the absence of a functioning State has been a source of frustration and anger. 

A New Government for a New State? 

Among other factors, these considerations have been key in Macron’s decision to change his Prime Minister, and appoint Jean Castex on July 3. As a well respected civil servant, Castex had been leading the special commission tasked with the preparation of the end of the lockdown, on May 11. A lesser known political figure, he has served as mayor of Prades, a small town in Southern France, for twelve years. His appointment as Prime minister was thus a promise for more collaboration, more local autonomy and less top-down policymaking.In his inaugural speech in front of the National Assembly, he vowed to end "public powerlessness", and to lead an efficiency-driven government based on cooperation with local authorities. The cabinet reshuffle also led to the appointment of Amélie de Montchalin, an energetic figure of the new generation mobilized by Emmanuel Macron, as Minister in charge of the transformation and the digitization of the whole public sector. Her challenge will be to reach concrete and visible results before the next presidential election of 2022. 

Beyond these new faces, the crisis had led to two importants shifts of power among the French political and bureaucratic elite. Inside "Bercy", the French ministry of economic affairs, the power has shifted from the "Direction générale du Budget" (the directorate-general for budget), who has been the driving force inside the French power structure for decades, to the "Direction générale des entreprises" (the directorate-general for companies and business), reviving the very French dream of a State that could drive the technological development of the French economy. Inside the French aristocracy of civil servants, the power has (slightly) shifted from the "Conseil d’Etat" (the state council), keepers of the sacred administrative law, to the "Cour des comptes" (the Court of Audit), dedicated to controlling the efficiency of public money. In a move that shocked the small world of public servants, the General Secretary of the Government, Marc Guillaume, had to leave his prestigious and powerful office, that had until now embodied the stiff "Deep State" that Macron is increasingly resentful of. 

The Big Test: the Recovery Plan

Hoping to leave the pandemic nightmare behind, the new government has worked all summer on a very ambitious Recovery Plan, officially announced on September 3. Even more than in its striking number (€100 billion) designed to impress the general public, the challenge lies in its ambition to kill two birds with one stone. The plan aims to spend a massive amount of public money as quickly as possible to revive the economy, while devising it as a long term investment plan aimed at transforming its infrastructure, its industry, and its public services. In a nutshell, the Direction générale des entreprises has been frustrated for too long by the budgetary restrictions imposed by the Direction générale du Budget to miss the chance to put itself in the driver’s seat again.

Could this recipe for success against the virus also be an example for the strengthening of public service, and the successful transformation of the centralized State into a more agile organization? 

The government is well aware of the daunting challenges ahead. Amélie de Montchalin has already announced that young and talented public servants would be deployed on the ground to serve as "recovery commissioners" (sous-préfets à la relance), to closely monitor the progress of the dozens of investment plans listed in the government’s roadmap. But is the French State really able to push this huge amount of money through all the bureaucratic hurdles, and reach the citizens before they make their mind up for the next presidential election? The stakes are high, and pressure is mounting in the "Deep State" that Macron likes to castigate when his top-down initiatives do not hit the ground quickly enough. The top-down method itself may be the problem. 

What if the pandemic is back (isn’t it already)? 

Where will we be on January 1, when the first billions will be made available through the next budget that the National Assembly is supposed to approve in record time? As strong as the willingness to turn the page may be, Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it is already striking back: with 13,000 new contaminations a day, and a prevalence of more than 180 cases for 100 000 inhabitants, France is now the "sick man of Europe", second only to Spain, where this virus has already spiraled out of control, again. 

Some elements can be reassuring, such as the strong popular support for the wearing of masks, even in public spaces, or the progress in the medical treatment of the most serious cases. During the summer, the sudden outburst of the virus in Mayenne, a rural district in the western side of the country, proved that local and national authorities, working together, could successfully flatten the curve, through massive testing, effective communication, and the mobilizing of public servants and NGOs to work hand in hand on the ground. Could this recipe for success against the virus also be an example for the strengthening of public service, and the successful transformation of the centralized State into a more agile organization? Maybe Covid-19 is not a distraction after all, but a catalyst for a much needed change in the relationship between State and Society in France. 


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