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Prior to the middle of the 20th century, the etatism of the French state, with roots in the ancien regime, had little influence over the organization of the civil service and the method of public management. Rather, at the center, decentralized and diffuse institutional arrangements characterized a system in which individual ministries designed individual arrangements for recruitment and classification. Some of the more powerful grands corps (civil service guilds) were influential in setting policy for appointment, career management, and promotion, as well as remuneration and conditions of employment.

The movement towards centralization and uniformity in civil service institutional arrangements took shape after World War II, particularly under DeGaulle. In the 1980s intermittent attempts by Mitterrand and his Socialist Party Prime Ministers to decentralize and reform these institutional arrangements were often stalled by incoming Gaullist governments. Since the late 1980s administrative modernization, along the lines of public management, has effected some changes, with a renewed interest in customer service and performance evaluation.

Successive interventions have revealed a disconnect between means and declared ends, at both the national and subnational level. Illustrative is legislation that simultaneously reinforces centralization and regulation in an attempt to achieve decentralization or deconcentration. Additionally, the distinction between national and subnational civil service arrangements is blurred when subnational governments employ former national civil servants, when national civil servants in departmental field services collaborate with subnational civil servants to implement national policy in the departments and communes, or when prefects wield authority over departmental and communal administration (as they did for many years).

Separate subnational units do exist. Yet in the past these units have had no decision-making function. They served the French state by performing certain tasks – some administrative, some to enhance security and some to facilitate political organization. As a result, they were responsible for hiring and training their own personnel. Even in the aftermath of decentralization, France is not moving towards federalism. Indeed, there is considerable controversy as to whether or not subnational units have new decision-making functions to complement new administrative functions.

The degree of control exerted by the state over sub-national administrations is a matter of debate. Prior to the Law of March 2, 1982 and its addenda, the prefect (an agent of the state and member of the national-level prefectoral corps) wielded power over administration in the communes and departments, and acted as the head of departmental assemblies and the director of communal councils. However, decentralization created a new territorial organization: the region. Many powers of the prefect were transferred to the presidents of the departmental general councils or regional councils. The prefect is to act as a broker and mediator between the central state and these subnational units. The transfer of jurisdiction to these territorial bodies was accompanied by the transfer of services and credit, and compensated for by the conferral of taxes and allowances.


While the center determines institutional arrangements and policy, this authority is diffuse. Reforms in 1945 and 1959 established and advanced the role of the Civil Service Commission (Direction generale de la fonction publique) in promulgating general regulations for a newly unified and restructured civil service. The Commission’s supervisory role allowed the Ministries to retain control over internal personnel management functions.

Additionally, Prime Ministers have chosen to establish a Ministry of Civil Service, primarily in support of administrative reform efforts.

Ministries and central agencies in Paris employ less than 30% of the national civil service. A larger number work as field officers for these Ministries, which are responsible for personnel management in their subnational locations. Similarly, the departmental prefects, deputies and subprefects, appointed by and responsible to the Minister of the Interior, are subject to policies defined at the center. Of course, these prefects have leverage in determining personnel arrangements in the prefectoral administration, as well as in communal structures. The corps (professional guilds) have authority over recruitment, training and promotion. This is especially true of the grands corps.

At the subnational level, decentralization was intended to support the principle of communal, regional and departmental determination of personnel policy. Nevertheless, at the urging of Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, the National Assembly passed a new statute in 1984 to modernize the civil service. It required a codification of the laws and regulations relating to the employment of subnational civil servants. With the intention of creating a local civil service analogous to the central civil service, officials of these subnational governments were to have the status of "fonctionnaires" with the same guarantees, rights and duties. The statute established regional and departmental personnel management centers for recruitment, training and management purposes, under the supervision of elected officials. Establishing an equivalence between the peripheral and central civil service corps was meant to facilitate mobility between the two.

Critics of the new legislation argued against centralization in a period of decentralization and inflexible institutional arrangements rather than local choice. Opposition from local councilors also slowed down implementation and the passage of subsidiary legislation. More to the point, critics claimed that the center should not control the reorganization of peripheral institutional arrangements. When the Gaullists returned to power they suspended the law.

Despite periodic efforts to the contrary, decentralization in the 1980s transferred selected central government tasks to regional and local authorities. This transfer of responsibility, the extent of which varied by Ministry and by sector, was intended to increase the administrative capacity of subnational governments. At the same time it brought more national civil servants into the service of subnational governments, or formally institutionalized collaborative working relations. Some interpreted this as inhibiting the development of local administrative organizations and structures and facilitating control by the center over institutional arrangements in the periphery.

Legislation and Regulations

Legislative Framework. Reforming the civil service – as part of campaigns for rationalization, modernization and democratization – has been a prominent theme of postwar politics. Governments have relied both on statutes in the National Assembly and directives (ostensibly for measures deemed politically difficult to push through the National Assembly). In an effort to extend both decentralization and modernization, the National Assembly and the government have designed statutes and directives that would reorganize subnational institutional arrangements.

Designation. At the national level all civil servants are national. Individual ministries, as well as the Prime Minister’s office, do sustain a large field presence, however. Sometimes these positions are filled by fonctionnaires-in-training, completing a tour of duty in the provinces. In some cases, members of a particular corps are detached to a position in the field and may work with subnational civil servants. Still, this form of secondment is within the national civil service and bound by national parameters for pay, etc.

Sub-national governments are responsible for organizing their own civil services.  More recently, this has included the employment of former national civil servants; the departments or communes determine the conditions of employment. As noted above, this limits the authority of sub-national governments to make these determinations.


At the national level, recruitment into the civil service is determined by the center. As noted, prior to the reforms of 1945, the corps and Ministries developed their own standards and procedures for recruitment.

In general, recruitment is tied to educational background. The lowest levels of the service require little education or modest education. Entrance to the higher levels of the service, especially one of the grands corps, depends on educational preparation and often examinations. The route includes either a university degree,  traditionally from the Ecole Libre de Sciences Politiques, one of the new regional Instituts d'Etudes Politiques, or equivalent time in a preparatory course.  The grandes ecoles (Ecole Nationale des Impots, Ecole des Mines, ENA) then conduct their own entrance exam.  Where more technical know-how is necessary,  the Ministries themselves maintain grande ecoles to guarantee specialized training and to ensure a suitable crop of technocrats. The grandes ecoles then serve as a point of entry into the grands corps in each Ministry and other state institutions.

The administrative reorganization of 1945 established the Ecole Nationale d'Administration to train civil service candidates in sociology, economics, statistics and public administration and to diversify the social background of would-be civil servants. Entrants to ENA must pass one of three exams.  One is for students who have completed a course of  higher education; the second is for civil servants who have completed several years of state service and are under 30.  In 1981, the Socialists instituted a third route in ENA: an exam for members of departmental councils, mayors, social security agencies and mutual societies. This was also intended to broaden and diversify ENA's student body. The Gaullists rescinded this third route  in 1987, but the Socialists reinstituted it in 1991.  ENA was subsequently moved to Strasbourg, as part of the decentralization effort.

At the sub-national level, the communes, departments and regions recruit their own administrative personnel based on individual assessments of need. As noted, the 1984 initiative to rationalize this process and raise the level of  professionalism did not succeed.

Structure and career management

Establishment control

At the national level, the Ministries request positions for the central and field offices based on an assessment of need, administrative domain and personnel policy. (However, government fiscal policy determines actual figures. In previous years, the government has alternately increased the numbers of civil servants as a means of reducing unemployment and then decreased the amount of pay available to civil servants, method of reducing both expenditures and the size of the national civil service.)

The decentralization program has had an impact on the need for additional sub-national civil servants. The transfer of administrative competence and functions  to the communes, departments and regions, along with the financial means to execute them, has raised the number of personnel necessary. Local leaders then establish new positions accordingly.

This has been the case with the establishment of regions to coordinate economic development, land use, planning and other tasks.  Regions have had to define both organizational and institutional arrangements,  as well as establish new positions. While the number of regional personnel increased steadily in the mid-80's, as jurisdiction was transferred, the total number of  regional positions (2000) is still far below that in departments (163,000) and  communes (796,000).

Appointment and mobility

At the national level, individual Ministries are responsible for appointment and transfer.  Indeed both decentralization and deconcentration demanded the transfer of personnel from national offices to field service operations. (As a point of fact, some Ministries resisted this transfer of personnel; in other cases, personnel resisted.) 

The center does not control the appointment or transfer of sub-national civil servants.

Employment Framework

The central budget is the source of pay for national-level civil servants.  The center regulates both the resources available for civil service salaries, as well as occasional pay raises and wage schemes. Between the 1950s and late 1970s, there was a general comparability between public and private sector wages.  However, in the 1980's public sector wages declined, particularly for the higher civil service. This was due, in part, to a reduction in resources allocated to civil servants and certainly to a de-linking of civil service pay increases from increases in the cost of living.

The complex system of classification is based on the four categories of civil service - administrative, executive, clerical and custodial -  as well as corps.  The corps would indicate the work done, the work-site, the grade, and, depending on the nature of the position, the rank and salary.  Approximately 10,000 higher bureaucrats are classified in categories above class A.

At the sub-national level, the central budget provides additional revenues for communes, departments and the regions and makes up gaps between revenues and expenditures, especially in the communes.  More to the point, the transfer of tasks, of competencies, from the state to the localities included funding.  Thus the center covers the wage bill for at least a part of the sub-national civil service.

Performance Management

At the national level, improved personnel management with an emphasis on performance measurement has been the hallmark of the administrative modernization effort.  In 1992, negotiations among the Civil Service Ministry, the Ministry of Finance and the ministers produced an agreement to set up independent management units to implement these programs and reform personnel management.

Standard setting and rewards

In 1983, the government asked the ministries to specify tasks, objectives and performance indicators.  Personnel evaluation procedures have evolved, as have associated training programs in the ministries.  A 1992 survey revealed that 67.5% of the administrative executives asked for further improvements in the performance appraisal system.  The 1990 Durafour agreement enabled the government to design and implement a system that would link performance assessments with professional mobility.

No information about the sub-national level.

Training and Development

Again, more formal training programs, to improve performance and chances for promotion, have been a cornerstone of the modernization effort.  Ministries are responsible for these programs, so they are less standardized.

Additionally, entrance into ENA offers training and advancement opportunities for a limited number of mid-career civil servants and local officials.

At the sub-national level, regions are responsible for coordinating training programs for personnel.


The Conseil d'Etat and the administrative courts perform certain external auditing functions, reviewing the legality of regulations, the behavior of civil servants and disputes between agencies. The system includes two dozen inferior courts, as well as five interregional administrative appeals courts. The Conseil d'Etat and the administrative courts have gained a de facto, if not de jure, independence from the executive.

Additionally, the office of the mediator or ombudsman, established in 1973, receives official complaints from MPs and can initiate proceedings against civil servants.

Internal audits are performed by the Inspectors General attached to each ministry. These perform several audit functions for the ministries.

At the sub-national level, decentralization is intended to make local administration more accountable to elected councils, which often employ external auditors. 


This page was authored by Robin Silver with Nick Manning.  It was submitted on 11/1/00.


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