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Public ‘Burned Out' by Bureaucracy

Wednesday 01 June 2011

The French ombudsman has painted a very bleak picture of the relationship between the citizen and the State.

In an extraordinary valedictory report that pulls no punches, Jean-Paul Delevoye, the outgoing Médiateur de la République claims the public are ‘burned out' by bureaucracy.

The report seems to confirm every stereotypical image that has come to be associated with French politics and public administration.

The Laws Don't Work

A great deal of the criticism is directed towards the volume of laws that are passed each year, the dysfunctional nature of such laws, and the misguided belief that they were actually doing any good.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, argues that ‘the plethora of laws that emerge from the legislature too regularly fail to take account of the reality of things on the ground.... The contradictions in laws that collide with one another..... leave the citizen powerless against an administrative system that too offen appears hermetically sealed.'

He considers that ‘the regulatory profusion obscures citizen's access to information and that, faced with the continuing complexity of the law, the system is extremely difficult for public officials to administer.'

Despite the amount of new legislation that spews out each year, the State still frequently fails to provide concrete and comprehensible solutions to problems. Indeed, it frequently leads to a ‘legal no man's land', with citizens left with a feeling of abandonment or discrimination, 'equally unjust as absurd.'

Many laws are often enacted too quickly, without prior impact studies to measure the likely consequences of the proposed change.

By way of example the ombudsman points to the creation of the RSI (the social security insurance fund for the self-employed) in 2007 from the merger of previous seperate funds, which has completely failed to live up to the promises that were made, and which is in a state of paralysis with the problems it faces.

He also cites the Loi Dalo passed in 2007, granting a right to housing for everyone, as a law full of good intent, but quite incapable of being implemented.

He expresses concern at the frequent gap between the objectives of new legislation and the resources allocated to implement them.

He points to the inability of many prefectures and local councils to deal with the responsibilities imposed upon them due to the lack of budgetary resources.

This leads in many cases to substantial delays in dealing with caseloads, office closures or reduced opening hours, and a restricted or unresponsive telephone service.

Self-Serving Public Officials and Politicians

The attitude of public officials and politicians comes in for equally strong criticism.

He rounds on the ‘excessive caution' of civil servants, their frequent ‘obstinacy' and other shortcomings, which ‘permeates through the public service, leading to injustice and dehumanization.'

Unsettled in turn by a system that often privileges mass treatment over individual care, administrators tend to hide behind the formalism and safety of a law applied indiscriminately.'

He points to the ponderous nature of the public administration, which he considers out of time with the lives and needs of individual citizens.'The administration imposes upon users the need for rigour and an implacable respect for prescribed timescales. Even minor errors in procedure frequently lead to sanctions, such as the loss of rights or penalties.'

Conversely, users who are forced to adapt constantly to the injunctions and pace of the economic system find themselves disarmed by the slowness and immobility of the administration, upon whom nobody demands they justify their own delays or clumsiness, and who seem incapable of imposing upon themselves the rigor they demand of citizens.'

He attacks the self-serving nature of the attitude of many public officials. ‘The sustainability of the public service does turn on its legal status, but by the quality of the service rendered', he says.

He denounces the frequent arrogance and abuse of power by politicians, both national and local.

Some politicians have not understood that they are in power to enforce the law, which they must also respect, and not in power to impose their own laws.'

Those in power must understand that their position is not a measure of superiority, but of responsibility,' he says.

Individual v Collective Interests

But the ombudsman does not let the public have it all their own way, for he criticizes the increasingly consumerist nature of the pursuit of private individual interests to the detriment of the collective interest.

The notion of ‘living together' has been weakened; more than ever, the defence of individual interest is carried out to the detriment of others, without regard to the wider interests of the community,' he says.

He also rails against the excessive belief amongst French citizens in the power of the law to bring a solution to all problems, posing a Kafkaesque dilemma for us all: ‘Is the profusion in laws creating the illusion of protection, when in reality it is at the origin of a great deal of legal uncertainty?


This was the last report of the Médiateur whose functions have been transferred to a Défenseur des Droits, incorporating a broader range of equalities and rights services.

Despite the new structure being operational since 31st March, the head of the service has yet to be appointed. In the light of this farewell letter from Jean-Paul Delevoye, it is easy to understand just why there has been a delay!

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