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Journal Articles Governance Year : 2001

Defensive versus Offensive Approaches to Administrative Reform in France (1988–1997)


From 1988 to 1997, all French prime ministers launched administrative reform programs with numerous concerns for increasing efficiency, strengthening responsiveness, or redesigning political and administrative roles within the state. However, these initiatives have never led to radical and disruptive changes. The institutional legacy seems to have strongly constrained the politics of administration. What, then, is the meaning of launching administrative reforms within the French political power configuration, and how does it “fit” with the way leaders try to establish their political authority? This article provides two empirical studies of different prime ministers (Michel Rocard under the Mitterrand presidency and Alain Jupp under the Chirac presidency) that can explain the nature of the French governments' commitments to these issues. It argues that understanding administrative reforms requires a mixture of institutional and actor-centered explanations, because these policies are really leadership challenges to the preexisting institutional order. As such, they are reflexively shaped or constrained by what they try to control and define. This paper shows that for a French prime minister to define the administration as a problem while building his own leadership can jeopardize the resources he will get from that same bureaucratic administrative system. This “power-reform dilemma” may explain why administrative reforms have proven more politically effective as an instrument of order-affirming impulses rather than as a disruptive strategy.

Dates and versions

hal-03606213 , version 1 (11-03-2022)



Philippe Bezes. Defensive versus Offensive Approaches to Administrative Reform in France (1988–1997): The Leadership Dilemmas of French Prime Ministers. Governance, 2001, 14 (1), pp.99 - 132. ⟨10.1111/0952-1895.00153⟩. ⟨hal-03606213⟩
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