Are France’s senior civil servants ready to serve the National Rally?

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PARIS — How many senior officials share Pierre Moscovici’s dilemma For several months, the first president of the Court of Auditors has been telling his visitors that he could leave his position early, so that his successor can be appointed before the 2027 presidential election. The goal? Prevent Marine Le Pen, in the event that she becomes French president, from making the appointment.

This case of conscience, which had only remotely bothered the hierarchs of the state apparatus, has been on everyone’s minds since Sunday evening. Faced with the prospect of a government dedicated to the ideas of the National Rally (RN), depending on the result of the coming legislative elections, three attitudes are emerging among senior civil servants: surrender, serve without flinching, or hope to resist from within.

The main unknown in this equation lies in the true intentions of the RN and the program it would apply.

“If we have a Trump or Milei project, few people will lend their support,” theorizes an official from the general management of the Treasury, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly like others interviewed for this article. But, “if it’s a Meloni scenario, some will come out of the woods and help out.”

The few senior officials who have rallied the party to the flame, however, are trying to reassure. Former prefect Christophe Bay, RN candidate for the legislative elections in Eure-et-Loir, dismisses the idea of ​​a “spoil system,” in which the arrival of a new power changes the heads of administration.

“We absolutely will not carry out a witch hunt in the senior civil service,” the former campaign director of Marine Le Pen’s 2022 presidential campaign told Public Actors.

Waves of resignations in sight? 

If senior officials were tempted to resign, not everyone would be in the same boat. The members of the Council of State and the Court of Auditors, particularly protected, could return without difficulty to their original bodies, since reintegration is done by law. 

“There will be a separation between those who have a body in which they can repatriate quickly and the others,” predicts a state adviser. “It’s much easier to have a principled position when you have a host body as a rappel rope.”

Resignations “would further fuel the hatred of the RN electorate for the elites,” believes another state councilor, who imagines that any departures will remain marginal. 

For these senior civil servants, being under the direct authority of the minister will be one of the main parameters, with the risk of losing their salary entering into the balance when making a choice.

In Bercy, several central administration directors could be tempted to seek a position in the private sector. Will Treasury agents want to find “solutions to make a flawed program work?” asks one of its executives. 

Those in the budget department “are not going to laugh so much,” says a former director of administration of the Ministry of the Economy, even though the economic program of the Lepenists remains vague.

For holders of positions less exposed to politics, such as those of deputy directors or office heads, an opposite dilemma could arise.

In the event of departure, “aren’t we abandoning the people we are supposed to serve?” asks a young worker stationed in Bercy. Without knowing, moreover, by whom they will be replaced.

The prefects will be particularly put under pressure, because it is up to them to implement political decisions on the ground.

“They could be extremely firm coming from the RN, which will have to show that there is a before and an after, and will go very hard,” fears a former worker in Beauvau. 

Cracked ramparts

Although Christophe Bay swears that the RN will “not do the same stupidity as that made by the socialists and the communists in 1981, when they dogmatically decapitated the senior civil service,” will Marine Le Pen resist the temptation to place her people? For example, at the head of the very sensitive general directorate for foreigners in France or the national police.

In the event of a major upheaval at the top of the state, a standoff between the Elysée and Matignon could arise for the most crucial appointments.

Directors general, directors of central administration, prefects, ambassadors — around 500 key positions are jobs left to the discretion of the government. For these “EDGs,” as we say in the jargon, Emmanuel Macron would have blocking power by signing appointment decrees.

That is a power which would inevitably be constrained. “In the event of cohabitation, there are negotiations, because there is practically a competing competence in terms of appointments,” which are validated in the Council of Ministers, explains researcher Luc Rouban, professor at Sciences Po. 

As for the theory of resistance from within, few believe it among the senior officials interviewed by POLITICO.

Of course, the administration can drag its feet, engage in micro-sabotage, poorly draft texts and slow down political momentum, but it cannot put obstacles in the way forever.

“A director of administration who has his bill or decree canceled by the Constitutional Council will not last long,” says a former chief of staff.

Senior officials prefer to reassure themselves by invoking the law, which will necessarily limit the future government’s room for maneuver. 

According to a magistrate, “state aid regulations or the Environmental Code are not going to disappear tomorrow, and civil servants apply the hierarchy of standards.”