Streamlining the system? If only it were that simple

Paris letter: to an observer who long felt she was watching bureaucracy sap the lifeblood of France, the ‘choc de simplification’ looks like the best thing going

French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: “French people want efficient, comprehensible public services.” Photograph: Reuters/Charles Platiau

French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault: “French people want efficient, comprehensible public services.” Photograph: Reuters/Charles Platiau


In my mind’s eye, the French administration is an undersea rock formation, accreting strata over the centuries. Since Napoleonic times, at least, it’s been liberté, égalité, bureaucratie.

So when François Hollande promised a “choc de simplification” last March, I was sceptical. In April, the government declared a moratorium on new regulations, on the grounds that the 400,000 already on the books were more than sufficient. It was a good first step.

The second phase of Hollande’s mission “to lighten the lives of the French” began on July 17th, when prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault announced 201 measures to kickstart the ‘shock of simplification’. “French people want efficient, comprehensible public services,” Ayrault said. Hear, hear.

National identity cards will henceforward be valid for 15 years instead of 10, reducing the queues in the préfectures by a third. France’s booklet drivers’ licence will be replaced by plastic, credit card-size permits, and licence-holders can monitor the points debited for driving offences online. Children under 12 will no longer be required to present themselves twice, accompanied by a parent, to obtain identity papers.

Digital hub
Much of the choc de simplification is digital. Car-owners will renew their registration online. Student records will be available on the education ministry website. A programme called “Tell Us Once” will group an individual’s documents on a government server, in theory obviating the need to carry one’s birth, marriage, divorce and medical coverage certificates, bank co-ordinates, work contract, professional card and electricity bills to every appointment with the administration. This trend towards digitalisation goes by the poetic name dématérialisation.

Since returning to France last February, I’ve mailed, transmitted or handed over so many personal documents that I might as well have scattered them like confetti over Paris.

The administration’s fixation with documents has, alas, infected the private sector. To rent a digital piano keyboard for €35 per month, I had to provide numerous documents proving my identity, bank details and home address, and initial all 15 pages of the fine-print contract.

According to a report published by the state auditor the Cour des comptes on July 11th, the government sends out 80,000 pages of ministerial circulars annually. A circular on chicken coops, published recently by the ministry of agriculture, came to 27 pages. In future, circulars are not to exceed five pages.

Ayrault also announced the dissolution or fusion of 68 consultative commissions deemed redundant. One hundred such commissions were already dismantled last December.

To an observer who long felt she was watching bureaucracy sap the lifeblood of France, the choc de simplification looks like the best thing going.

Not so fast
But I don’t underestimate the enormity of the task, and I have a few reservations. Dématérialisation risks marginalising the poor and ill-educated. For example, applications for government-subsidised housing are to be made online – by the very people least likely to have access to computers.

Also – though personally, I’d like to see a hotline and commando squad that would be dispatched to investigate long queues and incomprehensible forms – there’s a danger that bureaucracy is being created to fight bureaucracy. The very name “interministerial committee for the modernisation of public action”, known by the acronym Cimap – the group that drew up the 201 measures – smacks of administrative complexity. One worries about the endless reports, committees and draft laws created in the name of simplification.

More than half the new measures concern business. Hollande has understood that bureaucracy is costly and stifles initiative and competitiveness. The finance ministry says its priorities are to make it easier to create a business, reduce the number of “administrative acts”, simplify relations between enterprise and the state, clarify taxes and facilitate exports. Under a principle of ‘tacit accord’ the absence of a response from the administration means approval, not rejection; it’s not clear after how long.

Ayrault says the measures will save taxpayers €3 billion a year. Some are welcome, common sense steps. The cost of registering a company will decrease by half. Enterprises with fewer than 10 employees will no longer be required to publish accounts annually. Firms bidding for government contracts will have to submit masses of documentation only if they win the contract.

But the government appears to be mixing its paintbrushes, portraying the abolition of tax breaks for businesses and hundreds of millions of euros in cuts to subsidies to chambers of commerce and cinema production as ‘modernisation’ and ‘simplification’.

I’d wish they’d keep the simplification simple.

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