En 1989, the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002) published The State Nobility (Midnight). A title that pointed to the similarities between senior French civil servants and the elite of the Ancien Régime: their privileges, the extent of their powers, the boundaries established between them and the common civil servants.
But today, the expression “state nobility” has become inadequate. It obscures the role of “business nobility” in government of public service. Today, consultants, bankers on a temporary post at the Ministry of Finance, work together with very senior civil servants who look like them: they went through the same “preparatory classes” and Grandes Ecoles (Sciences Po, Polytechnique), common relations and close trajectories.
At the helm of the public sector is now a “public-private managerial nobility”. It extends from very senior civil servants to business leaders who intervene in school programs, and to consultants who reform the public hospital. Essentially male, she comes from privileged backgrounds who live in the wealthy neighborhoods of Ile-de-France. Its rule is immediate financial profitability made up of abstract quantifications, combined with managerial “knowledge”. This doxa infuses the teachings of the grandes écoles, which began to converge with those of business schools in the 1960s and 1970s.
Patent in “reformism”
This “new” public management is no longer that much. His proposals, which envisage public action above all in terms of the cost-benefit ratio, have constantly won favor with governments and heads of administration, until becoming dominant in the 2000s. administrative reforms, from the Rationalization of budgetary choices of the late 1960s to the General Review of public policies initiated in 2007 and the Civil Service Transformation Law of 2019. Public services must be inspired by the businesses; they must be profitable and they must be “rationalized”, according to a single method. Transport, agriculture or health pass under the gauge of the same private experts.
This conversion to new public management goes hand in hand with a new type of elite trajectory. Advancement in the very senior civil service is not obtained according to the egalitarian rules of the civil service statute. You have to be appointed by your superior and have your candidacy validated by the minister’s office. This requires obtaining a diploma in “reformism”: privatizing or merging, closing hospital beds, cutting more and more jobs… And doing it quickly: a successful career is no more than three years at the same job. You have to move forward, climb, at the risk of being boarded up by your competitors.
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