This article follows my summary of the essay by the young MIT economist Antoine Lévy in Le Figaro of 2 January 2021, which received much attention in France. Lévy had lamented the late start of the Covid vaccination in France. He cited the disregard for logistics, evasion of responsibility, state and administrative failures, and the government's loss of reality as key features of the French backlog.
A week later, an article appeared in Le Monde (which has since been renamed), which puts the accent on
- France's hypertrophic bureaucracy in the health sector . There, France has 93,000 administrative units (at the state, social security, and municipal levels) that can spend public money; in Germany, there are 15,000.
- Centralism with a vertical, silo-based organisation of ministries. The health minister gives his instructions to the programme managers, who in turn delegate the money to those responsible in the areas.
- Arrogance: On the ground, mayors and local authorities complain about the arrogance of senior officials, by whom they are disregarded even in an emergency situation where there should be unity.
- Hyper control: The central government's distrust and obsession with detail have paradoxically been reinforced by the various decentralisation laws. The state, no longer an actor but a client, then compensated for its loss of power by hyper-control.
- Administrative reform 2022: What has the Comité action publique 2022 achieved? "Nothing," says economist Jean Pisani-Ferry succinctly. "It was a kind of Mexican army," confirms Philippe Aghion, professor at the Collège de France, who was also a member of the reform commission. "We used bureaucracy to deal with the bureaucrats".
It is depressing and impressive how little France seems to have changed in this respect in the last century. Let us take as crown witnesses, in chronological order, writings by Marc Bloch and Herbert Lüthy.
With their groundbreaking work, the historians around the journal Annales revolutionised the study of history. Instead of listing battles and events, the Annales historians wanted to show human activity in its entirety, and to this end sought cooperation with other disciplines such as geography, sociology or economics. The medievist and agricultural historian Marc Bloch was a co-founder of the Annales historiography (along with Lucien Febvre); another famous representative was Fernand Braudel. Marc Bloch came from a Jewish family originally resident in Alsace, which had left Alsace after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870/1871. In 1944, he was captured in Lyon and executed by a German firing squad.
In L'Étrange Défaite (1946) published posthumously, Marc Bloch (as a soldier in 1940) examines from a frog's perspective the reasons for France's defeat in the battle for France during the Second World War, the Drôle de Guerre (Phoney War). Bloch's contemporary history essay is a testament to the shortcomings of the elites who entered the war in May 1940.
First, Marc Bloch denounced the bureaucratic character of the army, which he attributed to habits adopted in peacetime: in particular, the “cult du beau papier” (superfluous written memos), but also the "fear of displeasing a powerful man of today or tomorrow". According to Bloch, all this bureaucratic organisation is also rooted in the training of officers themselves, which revolves around a cult of theory and tradition. Officer training was based on elegant and abstract theoretical rules of engagement that did not stand the test of practice.
Second, a secrecy and command culture slowed down the dissemination of information. The combination of bureaucracy and rigid training led to general disorder in the field as leaders changed too often. Intelligence on enemy positions was prevented by meagre information at the operational level, as relevant information was classified and circulated only high up in the hierarchy. Information went through very long layers and ended up being outdated by the time it reached the people who were supposed to use it.
Third, dilution of responsibility between too many levels of the hierarchy and a delay in the transmission of instructions. This makes it impossible to estimate within what time span an order can be carried out, leading to counterproductive manoeuvres, such as the retreat of the armies on the Meuse and at Sedan before the German breakthrough in the Belgian Ardennes. Senior officers were also repeatedly surprised that "the Germans had simply moved faster than seemed to be the rule", the rule being based on the study of the Napoleonic campaigns and the First World War: the rigid and backward-looking strategic thinking of the French leadership, according to Bloch.
Fourth, shirking responsibility: Marc Bloch's indictment of the French generals, who denied any responsibility for the defeat of the French army in 1940, weighs particularly heavily. Because, in his eyes, the generals were incapable of adapting to the new realities of mobilised warfare of movement with tanks and air power.
A book by the Basel historian Herbert Lüthy attracted attention in France as well as in Germany and Switzerland shortly after Bloch's publication. France's clocks go differently, not necessarily wrong! This speaks, as Friedrich Sieburg noted, of "insight into the outrageous stability of the French being, which resists even the most stormy calls to adapt itself to the demands of the hour with a tenacity that arouses in the same breath the anger and admiration of those around it." The French version of Lüthy's book "A l'heure de son clocher: essai sur la France" thus echoes the cosy provinces of France, as evoked by Charles Trenet in "Douce France" in the 1930s, rather than hectic Paris.
Lüthy notes how much France lags behind in its mercantile economic concepts. For "France has not been governed but administered for decades". What Herbert Lüthy wrote in 1954 could still apply today: "Every new regime, and France has created more than a dozen of them in the course of two centuries, has come to power with a revolutionary programme of comprehensive state, administrative and judicial reforms; none has been able to do more than change names and replace people". After all, France was formed into the harmonious hexagon as we know it today under King Philip II (1165-1223), also called Philip the Lazy. The ´lazy´ king built the first beginnings of the administration in Paris and settled there with his administrative substructure.
Administrative dominance: Lüthy describes the continuity of France as the history of the development of its administration, France is the continuity of administration. "It has survived unshaken all dynasties, all revolutions and all catastrophes. Behind constantly changing facades of feudal, absolute, liberal monarchy, empires and republics in continuous numbering, the great institutions and corporations - and thus this state itself - have remained the same" (Lüthy, op.cit., p.20).
Elite: In reality, the administrative state is directed by the elite civil service (´Grand Commis´), civil servants far superior to the politicians in terms of seriousness and expertise. They shape the reason of state and decide "almost always from the spirit of the past". The civil servant elite is "a state of its own sovereignty, withdrawn from all political intervention, responsible to no one but its own hierarchy; ...a completely closed mandarinate that has acquired the esprit de corps and the consciousness of a select elite ... from childhood onwards in the great boarding schools preparing for careers" (Lüthy, p. 21).
Resistance to the 'technocrats' (eux!) from Paris can sometimes come from ´France profonde´, the villages and provinces of France. Shortly after television pictures showed President Macron being celebrated, even adored, by OECD employees at the Château de la Muette, the technocrat messiah was stopped by the protest of the yellow waistcoats from the car-dependent province. "Messianism and parochialism" form a unity in France, according to Lüthy.
But anyone who loves France, not just as a pensioner or tourist, has to fear for it. This is truer today than 50 years ago; with a common currency and a common economic area, Germany in particular has tied its fate to its western neighbour. Moreover, Germany itself, and even more so the EU, which is strongly French in its bureaucratic nature, is marked by similar burdens as Bloch wrote down for France's "Strange Defeat" in 1940.
 Antoine Lévy (2021), "La lenteur de la vaccination française est un symptôme de notre déclassement", Le Figaro, 1 January. My blog post on this: http://shiftingwealth.blogspot.com/2021/01/covid-frances-clocks-tick-differently.html
 The idiom stems from the Mexican Revolution. Meaning: ineffective organisation with a hierarchical structure involving an excess of managers and superiors.
 See also Alain Peyrefitte (1976), Le Mal français, Paris: Plon.
 Marc Bloch (1946), L'Étrange Défaite, Paris: Société des Éditions “Franc-Tireur”.
 Bloch did not want to register for the entrance examination at the war college, which is why he did not advance beyond the rank of captain.
 Herbert Lüthy (1954), Frankreichs Uhren gehen anders, Zurich: Europa Verlag. Idem (1955), A l'heure de son clocher: essai sur la France, Paris: Calmann-Levy. The English versions of his book carry the title France against Herself: A Perceptive Study of France's Past, Her Politics and Her Unending Crises.
 See for example Jacques Chapsal (1955), "Luthy (Herbert)", Revue française de science politique, Vol. 5-4, pp. 898sq.
 Friedrich Sieburg (1954), "Im Brennpunkt des Gesprächs: France's clocks go differently", Die Zeit, 13th May.
 The government of the united left French parties (Front Populaire) that came to power at the time of the Third Republic in 1936 (Prime Minister Léon Blum) made legal holidays (congés payés) universally binding.
 One of the few journalists who, unlike those from the FT or The Economist, seems to have intellectually penetrated Macron's helplessness in France's difficult reform environment is Thomas Schmid (2018), "Die Gelbwesten oder Warum Frankreichs Uhren anders gehen", https://schmid.welt.de/, 12 December.
 Hans Magnus Enzensberger (2011), Sanftes Monster Brüssel oder Die Entmündigung Europas, Suhrkamp.