Several right-of-centre candidates in April’s presidential election wanted to follow Margaret Thatcher’s example in shrinking the size of the French state.
There are just three problems with this.
One is that Thatcher did not quite succeed in her ambition.
All political careers end in failure, as we know, and hers was no exception.
Government spending did not decrease in the 1980s and the British civil service did not wither away.
France ranks 7th in Europe
Another problem is that France’s public sector is not excessive when compared with other European polities.
True, it has a lot of public employees, but in proportion to its inhabitants, France, with 5.5 million public sector workers out of an active population of 29 million and a total population of 67 million, comes about 7th in the European league table.
Staffing numbers at all levels of French government hover around the EU and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development averages (just ahead of the UK) but some way behind Scandinavian nations.
Precise comparisons between countries are difficult to make.
Shrinking public service benefits the rich
So many diverse ingredients make up the ‘public sector’ – and the term ‘public (or civil) servant’ can mean different things.
There is a difference, for instance, between a blue-collar and white-collar civil servant.
In France, bureaucrats are divided into three categories: employees of the central state; employees of local government; and employees of hospitals.
Thirdly, shrinking the state means shrinking public services, and this only benefits the rich who buy their own healthcare and education.
It can cause more problems than it solves.
A modern Western state has responsibilities
Does any ordinary person really want fewer police on the beat, village school classes closed, or a reduced number of hospital beds because there are not enough nurses to go around?
What most conservatives mean when they praise Thatcherism is that they want to make the public sector more efficient, to deliver better services at a reduced cost by cutting administrative jobs.
Who doesn’t want fewer time-serving bureaucrats on the payroll?
But it is not that easy.
A modern Western state has a lot of responsibilities weighing it down: defence, policing, education, health (physical and mental), transport and energy infrastructure, local administration – not to mention dealing with the unemployed, the marginalised, crime reoffenders... The list goes on.
An ageing population, as in France, makes the burden greater still.
Vulnerable don’t have a voice
Politicians love to talk of reforming the bureaucracy but there is only so much slack that can be cut without impacting negatively on consumers, only so much that IT can help with, only so many tasks that the profit-making private sector is willing to take on – even when subsidised by the state.
Slashing jobs in the fonction publique makes for good political campaigning.
No one is going to cry for civil servants who transition (in the popular imagination) from a job-for-life to retirement on a generous pension scheme.
The poor, old, weak, disabled and others who will be most affected by this slimming of the state do not have much of a political voice.
But there are realistic limits.
Efficiencies do exist but there will be a backlash
What is true is that France is a complicated country in which the bureaucracy makes little effort to be user-friendly.
Procedures everywhere could be streamlined, officials could be more responsive to emails, and it would be nice if some campaigning organisation would encourage the tax department to write its forms in ‘Plain French’.
In his second term, Emmanuel Macron will have to strike a balance between many competing interests.
He will certainly want to eliminate several thousand fonctionnaire posts but there is bound to be a backlash.
How can any president hope to avoid the paradox of politics: the more a government is asked to do, the more workers it must employ to get the job done?
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