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Brain drain in the private sector, takeover of managers... how the state self-destructed

2023-11-14T16:14:40.970Z

Highlights: Maroun Eddé is a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure and a specialist in political philosophy. He has just published his second essay, La destruction de l'Etat, published by Bouquins. The more the state has been removed, the more dysfunctional it has become, he says. The "start-up nation" model is based on a fantasized vision of the American model and not on the real keys to the success of the U.S., he adds.


INTERVIEW - In his latest book, "The Destruction of the State", the normalien Maroun Eddé analyzes the reasons for the collapse of public power in France since the 1990s and proposes ways to halt this decline.


Maroun Eddé is a graduate of the Ecole Normale Supérieure and a specialist in political philosophy. He has just published his second essay, La destruction de l'Etat, published by Bouquins.

LE FIGARO. – You describe the retreat of the state since the 1990s, in the name of the "strategic state" and the "disengagement of the state". Is it a political orientation or the result of a collective failure?

Maroun EDDE. – This was largely intentional. It corresponds to the application in France of the Reagano-Thatcherite turn, begun in the 1980s in the United States and Great Britain, which maintained, as Reagan said, that "the state is not the solution to the problem but the problem" and that "the government that governs best is the one that governs the least". Thus, during the sale of Alcatel to Nokia in 2015, Emmanuel Macron, then Minister of the Economy, called for an end to a "romantic" vision that defended the blocking of the merger in the name of the defense of companies in France. The state should no longer have a role to play in energy and industrial policy; Everything that could be privatized had to be privatized, including public services.

It is more surprising that, 30 years later, this path is still being pursued even though its record is quite critical. It's a vicious circle: as the dysfunction of the state worsens and is interpreted as an excess of state, when on the contrary there is too little, we continue to short-circuit our senior officials with the idea that it is the administration that is responsible for its own failures. Emmanuel Macron's speech to the diplomatic corps in 2019 is a good example of this, when he blamed it for the failures of his foreign policy, denouncing the deep state at the Quai d'Orsay, before simply abolishing the diplomatic corps in 2022. The more the state has been removed, the more dysfunctional it has become, and the more it has continued to be dismantled, confusing the disease with the cure.

You note that public services – schools, hospitals, courts, etc. – are being exhausted, while public spending continues to rise. How can this paradox be explained?

One of the main explanations is the inflation of an intermediary bureaucracy and the taking over of generic managers to replace the various experts. Intermediary agencies have multiplied, in accordance with a decentralization that has been partly deliberate, which has led to administrative duplication, particularly in health and education. The abolition of 200,000 civil servants announced in 2007 by Nicolas Sarkozy in fact consisted of transferring civil servants from the central state to local authorities, weighing just as heavily on the taxation of households and companies. There has been a pretense of reducing public spending, which has nevertheless increased because of the growing inefficiencies of failed decentralization and the multiplication of public and private intermediaries, paid more and more for services that are often worse than when they were provided in-house.

You analyse the "start-up nation" model desired by Emmanuel Macron. Why do you think it is an illusion? What are the consequences, particularly on the French productive fabric?

The "start-up nation" model is based on a fantasized vision of the American model and not on an analysis of the real keys to the success of the United States. Silicon Valley is a far cry from the fantasized image of the T-shirt-clad engineering student in his garage who comes up with an innovative idea on his own – the "Zuckerberg myth". Since its inception in the 1950s, the U.S. government and military have built, through public investment in research and universities, a veritable ecosystem that has allowed innovations to emerge. These are still largely supported by the state: Elon Musk himself benefits from several billion dollars in public subsidies each year, both for Tesla by the federal state of California, and for Space X by NASA. Start-ups have not replaced the state's industrial policy, but they are an offshoot of it.

The State tends to value the careers made outside itself rather than those it pretends to promote within itself, and to bypass its own senior civil servants by external service providers even if the skills exist internally.

Maroun Eddé

In France, the "start-up" model was announced after 30 years of deindustrialization, as if we would be able to catch up with these decades by their speed of growth. This is in fact illusory because it corresponds to their valuation, based on their future profitability, and not to their production activity and job creation. The focus has thus been on the valuation, in particular of the famous "unicorns" (start-ups valued at more than a billion dollars, editor's note), to the detriment of the development of a real productive fabric. France should have been inspired by what the United States has actually done rather than by its story telling and the image it gives of its own model.

The end of the meritocratic model, the disconnection of elites, the brain drain into the private sector... Has the state failed to train its own servants? Is the reform of the INSP (formerly ENA) a step in the right direction?

The state still trains its elites but no longer knows how to attract or retain them. Great engineers graduate from the École Polytechnique, but they mainly go into the private sector (70%), consulting, finance or data, and 25% of them go directly abroad. In France, there is a shortage of 70,000 engineers in IT; there are 70,000 French engineers in Silicon Valley. This public brain drain was largely orchestrated by the state itself: to a Polytechnique student who wanted to join the Corps des Ponts, his school told him that it was better to go and work in finance. The absence of a corps of computer scientists is also acutely felt – the telecoms corps was abolished at the dawn of the internet revolution. The State tends to value the careers made outside itself rather than those it pretends to promote within itself, and to bypass its own senior civil servants by external service providers even if the skills exist internally.

Read alsoObsession with the media, bureaucracy, "Potemkin" visits... Behind the scenes in ministers' offices

The reform of the INSP goes in the wrong direction because this school no longer gives access to the top of the State, and consequently opens a wider door to consulting firms. From 2025, there will no longer be any places at the General Inspectorate of Finance and the Court of Auditors for those who graduate from this school. They will find themselves stuck in the workings of the middle administration, to the benefit of people who have graduated from HEC, who have worked for a few years at McKinsey, and who are less experienced in serving the State. The INSP is the ENA in a worse way, with more nepotism and a few consulting firms.

In 2021, the French learned that McKinsey had developed the government's vaccination strategy during the Covid crisis. How did consultants invade our administration? Is this outsourcing of public policies a solution?

As Caroline Michel and Matthieu Aron say in The Departed – How Consulting Firms Took Control of the State, "consultants are not infiltrated at the top of the state, they have been infiltrated". What for? Unlike senior civil servants who had a certain degree of autonomy from political leaders, consulting firms are paid to say what they are told: it is much easier to instrumentalize their reports. On the other hand, they may also have been a point of departure for senior civil servants wishing to retrain in the private sector, a phenomenon that has become more pronounced as they have been contracted. Taken to Bercy for three years, the senior civil servant has an interest in giving contracts to consulting firms in order to be noticed and then hired.

Consulting firms have completed their assignment at the time of the announcement, unlike in-house experts who also care about execution. These announcements accelerate the conversion of politics into a mere PR stunt.

Maroun Eddé

The outsourcing of public policies perpetuates the loss of competences and increases the dependence of the state on external private interests. As soon as the state shows that it makes more use of consulting firms than its own civil servants, it scares away those who wanted to join its service. This outsourcing contributes to a decline in public policies, as shown by the numerous reports within the State on the services of consulting firms. The Interministerial Directorate for Public Transformation says of McKinsey that there is "a lack of legal culture and more broadly of the public sector". As the missions of the private sector are much more lucrative, consulting firms make available to the State freshly graduated juniors with no experience of the public sector, who have learned to adopt methods of analysis and cost optimization made for the private sector to subjects that deserve to take into account other considerations such as sovereignty or social justice.

What are the working methods of these firms?

When the Ministry of the Interior calls Roland Berger to study the radio systems used by the police in other countries, this consulting firm provides him with a power point that compares the information, but the system has yet to be done: the consulting firm has completed its mission at the time of the announcement, unlike the in-house experts who also care about execution. These publicity effects accelerate the conversion of politics into a pure PR stunt, with what I call the four horsemen of persuasion.

The French system needs to be revived rather than completely rebuilt. France has made mistakes but our industry and large groups still exist. It can no longer retain and recruit talent, but it still knows how to train them.

Maroun Eddé

First of all, the perfection of the form – "lining up visually flawless slides" – is crucial to give an appearance of scientificity despite the lack of substance. Secondly, the use of Newspeak, of Anglo-Saxon origin, makes it possible to close the debate by giving the impression of additional expertise: we no longer speak of the closure of hospital beds but of "capacity resizing", of cost cuts but of "lean management", etc. The apparent neutrality and technicality of the numbers is another way to dodge the discussion. Finally, 'benchmarking' consists of drawing inspiration from what is being done elsewhere, which is laudable in itself, but the analysis is not carried out in depth. For example, taking the OECD figures which showed a correlation between the functioning of the best education system and non-repetition, the Ministry of Education was led to decide to abolish repetition, presented as a "best practice" to improve school levels, whereas the causality is obviously the opposite.

How can the state and its administration be rebuilt?

We must stop destroying it and change the practices that remain the same. We need to rediscover a real will to save the public service and put in place a coherent energy and industrial policy, knowing how to say no to foreign influences and the sirens of private interests.

However, in France, the system needs to be revived rather than completely rebuilt. The phenomenon of state retreat affected the entire Western world in the 1990s, and some countries much more than we did. As the United Kingdom has completely divested itself of its industries, London is an international financial centre disconnected from the rest of the country, deserted. Germany has made itself entirely dependent on Russian gas. France has made mistakes but our industry and large groups still exist. It can no longer retain and recruit talent, but it still knows how to train them. My generation, which has suffered the full force of the return of tragedy in history, is aware of the essential nature of the State, and wants to implement this necessary catch-up to save the viability of our model.

The Destruction of the State, by Maroun Eddé, Bouquins, 384p., 21 euros. Books

Source: lefigaro

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