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Zooming in On French Public Service

Zooming in On French Public Service
 Victor Poirier
Former director of Publications

Marked by a notable effort towards greater transparency and digitization, the main objective of this presidential term was to bring the public service closer to citizens, while facilitating the mobility of civil servants and achieving digital transformation. Though obvious efforts were made, they have not been enough to meet all the commitments made. Most notably, the flagship campaign promise of reducing 120,000 public jobs over 5 years was not kept. However, a series of new measures were put in place in order to deal with the pandemic, which led to varying degrees of success. 

With less than three months to go until the French election, this article is part of a series that looks into the achievements and drawbacks of Emmanuel Macron’s presidential term. The extended analysis in French can be found here

Key Notions: 

  • Forms of employment in the French public service: 
  1. Fonctionnaires, or civil servants, are recruited through a process that involves examinations and training. There are three categories of fonctionnaires, corresponding to three public functions: state civil servants (les fonctionnaires de l’État), territorial civil servants (les fonctionnaires territoriaux) and hospital workers (les hospitaliers).They benefit from a special status that dates back to 1946, which ensures them lifetime employment in the public service. 
  2. Agents contractuel, or "contract agents", are one of the categories of non-permanent agents in the civil service, along with auxiliaries, temporary workers, trainees and cabinet jobs. These agents are distinct from civil servants, though they undergo a similar recruitment process by passing an internal competition or a professional examination. Like fonctionnaires, agents contractuel are recruited in one of three public functions: the State civil service, hospital civil service, and territorial civil service. Overall, a significant share of contract agents occupy support and assistance functions, such as supervisors, technical assistants etc. 
  • Comité Action Publique 2022 - program aiming to question the current model of French public service, including public sector jobs and means, all in a context of digital transformation. 
  • Public Service Transformation Act 2019 - Sets out to make the public service more attractive through increased career mobility and an improved HR management system. 
  • Interdepartmental Committee for Public Transformation (CITP) - Chair by the Prime Minister, the CITP committee brings together all members of the government at least once every six months, to report on their actions and development of public service.
  • École nationale d’administration (ENA) - An elite higher education institution that was tasked with training civil servants, long-considered as a gatekeeper to obtaining high positions in the public sector. Faced with criticism, Emmanuel Macron decided to transform this institution in 2021, by allowing it to evolve into the Institut National du service public (INSP). 
  • The Public Action Barometer - An online space created in 2021, where citizens can consult the latest figures and results of public service in their area. Users can follow the progress of 43 priority reforms carried out by the government since 2017, in eight distinct areas: ecological transition, employment and the economy, health, family and disability, education, security, culture, public services and housing. 

Key figures 

  • According to data collected by INSEE in 2019, state civil servants (FPE) make up the majority of French civil servants, at an estimated 25,007 (44%). This is followed by territorial civil servants (FPT), at 19,680 (35%), and hospital workers (FPH), at 11, 895 (21%). In total, there were 56, 644 civil servants. 
  • Emmanuel Macron had initially planned to cut down 24,000 public service jobs per year to fit into his overall objective of 120,000 cuts. Instead, only 7,131 jobs were cut following a shift in government strategy, especially after Covid -19.
  • Institut Montaigne calculated that this cut down would have saved €3.17 billion per year. Instead, government personnel spending increased from €189 billion to €195.4 between 2019 and 2021. 
  • The share of contract agents increased from 17.6% in 2016 to 19.2% in 2018. 
  • In the context of digitizing public services, the number of procedures that can now be carried out online rose to 85% in July 2021 (out of 242 procedures) from 67% in June 2019 (out of 253 procedures). 
  • Given efforts to encourage working from home since the pandemic, the rate of remote working in the public sector rose to 50% from 6.4% pre-pandemic. 

Evaluating public service in France:

  • The flagship campaign promise of cutting 120,000 public sector jobs, as part of an effort to reduce government spending, has not been kept. Instead, the government is now rather seeking to keep its public workforce stable.
  • There has been a significant effort to improve transparency and to boost the digitalization of public services, in line with campaign commitments. In 2018, it was estimated that due to increased digital autonomy and online procedures the administration could save up to €450 million. For users, it is estimated that they save up to 30 minutes on average for procedures that can now be carried out online, according to the European Commission. Since the welfare benefit application procedure was made digital in 2017, there’s been a 2% increase in applications. 
  • The Public Service Transformation Act of 2019 initiated a profound transformation by facilitating the use of contract employment (agents contractuels), as opposed to lifetime public servants. To that end, it promoted the career mobility of public servants between the public and private sectors.
  • The Yellow Vests crisis has led the government to focus on public services at a territorial level, in order to bring them closer to local communities and decentralize them from the Paris region. 
  • In 2021, the École nationale d'administration was replaced by the INSP, after several years of debate. It remains to be seen whether the shift really represents the transition to a new, more inclusive model of accessing employment in public service, or whether it is a mere change of name. 
  • The Covid-19 crisis exposed the challenges of the French public services, which tried to ensure the continuity of their activities in an unprecedented context of lockdown. Implementing remote working was part of such efforts. In March 2020, Emmanuel Macron announced that an exceptional bonus would be provided to the civil servants mobilized during the health crisis. This bonus was capped at €1,000 for the local and state public service, and €1,500 for public hospital workers, and it was exempt from income tax and social security contributions. 
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