The future of technocracy in France

Technocracy refers to rule by experts. Technocrats are highly qualified specialists driven primarily by a desire to solve problems through science and technology. One scholar describes technocracy rather grandiloquently as a quest for “cognitive problem-solution mindsets”. The legitimacy of technocrats derives, not from being elected, but from their technical expertise.

In contemporary discourse, we hear about “politicians versus technocrats”, as if the two are binary and antinomian. On the contrary, they are complementary. Technocrats focus on getting the right things done; politicians focus on getting the right things in tune with the popular will. Politics, after all, is the art of the possible.

In medieval France, as elsewhere in Europe, the grand offices of state were held by noblemen. Feudal lords purchased public posts known as “prebends”. For example, a man could buy the position of Comptroller-General of Customs for life. It was in such an environment that the likes of Armand Jean du Plessis, later Cardinal Richelieu (1585—1642), flourished. As First Minister of State to Louis XIII, he became richer than the state and was, in fact, a lender to it.

France went through violent upheavals in 1789 – revolution and the terror — before Napoleon imposed his iron will. The republic became an empire under him. And thereafter, there was the interregnum of the constitutional monarchy, before the emergence of the liberal État du droit that exists to this day.

France has been a technocracy since Bonaparte. He introduced the “Code Civil”underpinning the entire corpus of French public law. Napoleon founded a professional civil service; including the military-type corps of engineers for infrastructures and public works.  He modernised the Conseil d’Etat (the Council of State) as the highest administrative court and institution for policy guidance throughout the vast apparatus of government. He instituted a rigorous system of public examinations, known as “concours”, for entry into the civil service.

Since 1945, France has been the quintessential administrative state. Having put their monarchy under the guillotine, the French people today pride themselves in being an aristocracy of talent. It has always been in the nature of men to crave for what they have lost. Leaders like François Mitterrand (President from 1981–1995) were often criticized for carrying on like royal monarchs. Even our young Macron is not immune to the disease.

France is innately a meritocracy. It is only in France — with the possible exception of Russia — where a great scientist, philosopher, mathematician or writer would enjoy the status of royalty. In the sixties, for example, Jean-Paul Sartre was arrested for driving under the influence. The law prescribed a jail sentence. However, President Charles de Gaulle announced a reprieve on national television. He pointed out that, Sartre, the leading philosopher and writer of the day, was an embodiment of France herself. He therefore hoped his fellow compatriots would agree with him that France could not possibly be imprisoned!

Since the eighteenth century, France has always regarded herself as the guardian of the universal values of civilization. The country’s greatest institutions — from the College de France to the venerable Académie française – are an embodiment of those great ideals. At any time, there are a maximum of 40 members of the Academy, informally known as “the immortals”. The French may have lost their Christian faith, but they have apparently not lost the belief in immortality.

If there is one institution whose imprimatur has dominated French public life for much of our century, that institution is the École national d’administration (National School of Administration), popularly known by its acronym, ENA. It belongs among the class of educational institutions known as “les Grande École” (the Great Schools). Uniquely French in character and provenance, the Grandes Écoles are highly selective professional academies outside the mainstream universities. The greatest of them are: École Polytechnique (for engineers), École Normale Supérieure (for teachers and academics) and ENA (for civil servants).

Founded in 1945 by President Charles de Gaulle and Prime Minister Michel Debré, ENA was established with the aim of democratizing and professionalizing the civil service; to create an administrative elite with a mandate to advance the flourishing and glory of France. Originally located in Paris, the institution has since been moved to Strasbourg in order to give it a more European appeal. Bestraddling the Franco-German border, Strasbourg also houses the EU Parliament and the Council of Europe.

Parallel with ENA, and with which it has since been merged, is the Institut International d’Administration Publique (IIAP); created to train administrators from the former colonies. The first President of Senegal, Leopold Sedar Senghor, was a professor at IIAP. Its graduates include “Francophone” leaders such as Paul Biya of Cameroon, Brigi Rafini of Niger and Nicéphore Soglo of Benin.

 

I happen to be an alumnus myself

You could say that ENA sits atop a privileged republican elitism that defines contemporary France. Competition for entry is gruesome. Fully funded by the state, new entrants spend two and a half years studying economics, finance, public administration, public law and international relations. In the finals, they are ranked by order of merit. The best invariably end up as Inspecteurs des Finances, considered to be the most prestigious in the pecking order. The rest end up at the Conseil d’État, the foreign service and general administration.

The term “Enarchie” has been used pejoratively in reference to ENA graduates as a self-perpetuating oligarchy. A unique tradition of French public administration is that civil servants can take leave-of-absence to go into politics. And unlike the Anglo-Saxion tradition, they can always come back to the service if they so wish.

As a consequence, most of the leaders that have dominated French politics in the last half-century have predominantly been ENA graduates. As a rule, rather an exception, France’s Presidents and Heads ofGovernment have been “Enarques”: Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, François Hollande and incumbent Emmanuel Macron. And Prime Ministers Laurent Fabius, Michel Rocard, Édouard Balladur, Alain Juppé, Dominique de Villepain and Edouard Philippe. The ministers and captains of industry are legion.

In recent times, however, questions are being raised about what is increasingly seen as an incestuous and rigid bureaucratic tradition. A British academic, Peter Gumbel, has criticized the institution for allegedly fostering “groupthink”. In 2019, President Macron, an Enarque himself, announced that the institution might be phased out.

I believe ENA has served France rather well. But the critics also have a point. The institution seems to have confirmed German sociologist Robert Michels’s “Iron Law of Oligarchy”. But the solution, in my view, is not to throw away the baby with the bathwater; rather, we have to change the water. France needs a new ENA for a new generation. Curriculum and recruitment processes need to be reinvented to meet the imperatives of the twenty-first century; with emphasis on leadership and emotional/social intelligence rather than just cognitive-intellectual excellence.

There are lessons for Nigeria. Austrian-American economist, Wolfgang Stolper, one of the architects of our First National Development Plan, 1962—1968, observed that the Nigerian civil service of the sixties was the best in the emerging Commonwealth — ahead of India, Malaysia and Singapore. He was very impressed with technocrats such as Simeon Adebo, Ali Akilu, Ojetunji Aboyade, Samuel Aluko, Jerome Udoji and Pius Okigbo. Today, sadly, the glory has departed. Our public service has become a Byzantine behemoth characterized by sloth and grand larceny. Yet, our discourses on “restructuring” hardly ever mention civil service reforms.

And yet, it is a truism that no nation can arise above its civil service. We need great technocrats like they have in France, but without the narrow-minded elitism; a professional merit-based bureaucracy comprising people of excellence; creative leaders and servants of the people who have fully grasped the mission and destiny of our great country.

 

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