The Bureaucracy

The administrative system of France is divided into ninety “departments” (excluding the three in Algeria), each headed by a “prefect” who is appointed by and responsible to the central government in Paris. There are elected departmental councils, but the power of the central authority is overwhelming in most matters. The position of the departmental governments, therefore, is not parallel with that of state governments in the United States. There is nothing in the French setup that resembles “state rights” under the United States Constitution. The French system, like that of Great Britain, is one of highly centralized authority.

The government bureaus in Paris are the heart of the whole system, for there, in the last analysis, most decisions are made. Each ministry (we call them departments—for instance, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs corresponds to our Department of State) is headed by a cabinet minister who is responsible to the Chamber of Deputies. But the real strength of the ministry has always been in the permanent corps of civil servants who staff its various bureaus. They are the experts on whom the minister must rely for information and guidance and for the carrying out of his policies.

To be sure, the bureaucracy in Paris was often an obstacle to the introduction of new ideas or new methods of governing. But at the same time it provided an element of permanency and stability much needed in the French system. Ministers might come and go, but the permanent staffs continued in office to give a continuity of policy that otherwise would have been sadly lacking.

Sometimes the permanent officials of the French bureaus presumed to handle the affairs of government without regard either to the wishes of the responsible cabinet minister or to the expressed will of the nation. Confident that they knew what was best for the people, they sometimes went right ahead to apply their own ideas of the proper thing to do whether the people wanted it or not.

Again, the French bureaucrats tended to get wound up in red tape until red tape seemed an end in itself. Comfortably installed in Paris, they tended to become inefficient and slothful, and they did not always listen to complaints and pleas arising from local problems. But in spite of severe criticism of its faults and in spite of arguments that centralization of authority does not square with true democracy, the French administrative system has lasted for more than a century without much change.