The senior public service reform: President Macron’s successful communication strategy
Although the senior public service is said to be irreformable, it has undergone a great deal of change since 2017… and no one has had anything to say about it. How has the President of the Republic managed to enforce his innovative vision of the senior public service without causing major opposition? Let’s take a closer look at this opportunistic communication strategy, carried out quietly and in the long run… and seems to be paying off.
In 2018, the choice to appoint Philippe Besson, a writer close to the President, as Consul General in Los Angeles had provoked an outcry at the Quai d’Orsay. But this past summer, the new appointments at the role of Prefect have generated almost no criticism! Let’s quote the appointment of business leader, Thibault Lanxade, activist and essayist Lydia Guirous, or the director of Strasbourg’s University Hospitals Michaël Galy. The secret of this success: a communication strategy based on three pillars, implemented patiently and with perseverance since 2017.
Incremental developments over revolutions
First pillar of the President’s communication strategy: slicing up the reform into multiple small measures. Rather than immediately announcing a major reform of the senior public service, which would have been extremely risqué, the President chose to communicate successively on more technical and less spectacular reforms, which made it possible to avoid crystallizing all the oppositions at the same time. Replacement of the ENA (National School of Administration) by the INSP (National Institute of Public Service), reform of access to “major corps”, establishment of remuneration methods inspired by the private sector, feminization of management jobs, appointment of a few personalities from the private sector to positions formerly reserved for senior career public servants… the President proceeded in small, successive steps, creating “ratchet effects”, which are changing and will change the senior public service in a lasting and profound way.
The cultural battle before the reform
Second pillar: waiting until you have won cultural battles before initiating reforms. Let’s go back on the aforementioned example of personalities coming from the private sector having been appointed to prefect positions. A few years ago, many people would have raised their voice in order to denounce the importation of the American style “spoil system”: which is contrary to the career system of the French senior public service. But today, these designations no longer surprise anyone. Several developments have slowly modified public perceptions, making them more favorable to this type of developments. Notably, the 2017 Legislative elections saw the nomination of deputies that were new to politics and that originated from civil society. This undermined the idea according to which, to enter the National Assembly, it was necessary to have grown within a political party for several years where one first handedly learns the “job” of what being a political leader is. Likewise, the idea that individuals will, over their lives, work several different professions during their lives has increasingly been incorporated inside the minds of the workforce, and has also resulted, since the pandemic, in a considerable increase in professional retraining (+35.8% in 2022 compared to 26.2% in 2021, according to the observatory of professional trajectories). The President was able to skilfully ride these trends to begin implementing the “spoil system” that he had been advocating for since 2017.
The rhetoric of elite bashing
“I want a senior public service that mirrors society: that better embraces its pulses, grasps its demands, embodies the spirit of the times.”: the President also did not hesitate to dust over his speeches a moderate form of “elite bashing”, in order to justify the suppression of the ENA particularly after the yellow vest crisis. A classic rhetoric of political communication. Here again, the President, as one wise reader of Machiavelli, was able to seize the right opportunity to his advantage…even if it meant calling into question an elite of which he himself is a pure product!
Breaking down reforms into multiple small measures, cultural battles, anti-elite rhetoric… all perfectly timed to seize the right opportunity. The President has proven to us that he also knows how to use long-term communication, and that he can avoid small provocative sentences to better achieve his goals. An observation to reflect on, at a time of “punch lines” and repeated announcements.
Sara Ouafir & Eric Giuily