Pantouflage, corpsards (France)
|Definition: Practice of leaving a civil service position, typically on secondment, to obtain work in the private sector|
|Keywords: France – Europe – EU – Public service – Revolving doors – Employment|
|Clusters: Market – Functional ambivalence – Gaming the system – Camouflage – Intermediation|
|Author: Frédérique Alexandre-Bailly and Maral Muratbekova-Touron|
|Affiliation: Department of Strategy, Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, ESCP Europe|
|Website: Profile page at Researchgate, Profile page at ESCP|
By Frédérique Alexandre-Bailly and Maral Muratbekova-Touron, Department of Strategy, Organizational Behavior and Human Resources, ESCP Europe
|Pantouflage is the practice of leaving a civil service position to obtain work in the private sector in France. The civil servant is typically granted secondment to the private sector position in the first instance, and so reserves the option to return to his civil service position at the end of the secondment period, although a permanent move to the private sector is also known as pantouflage. The term pantouflage is derived from the word pantoufle (a slipper), which in the slang of students from the Ecole Polytechnique (a high-status military engineering school, popularly known as ‘X’ due to the school symbol of two crossed canons) means the price paid to the State to defray one’s obligations to it: education costs and the commitment to serve it for ten years (Kessler 1986). In an American context, this practice is known as ‘revolving door’. There are several reasons why civil servants opt for pantouflage: the wage differential with the private sector; the attractiveness of new experiences in business where they can actually take risks and see their projects realised; and the difficulty of access to the few most prestigious civil service positions (Rouban 2002).|
The top management positions in the public sector (and indeed, frequently the private sector too) are held by corpsards: members of the Grands corps de l’Etat, networks of civil servants which play a significant role in the government and business structure of France. It is a social group drawn from the dominant social classes, providing it with an aura of prestige and power (Kessler 1986). Having a pyramid structure, the grands corps require a significant fraction of their members to move on, because not everyone cannot attain the highest levels. Civil servants may be granted secondment from their job in the public sector to a private sector position for a period lasting from one to three years.
For its part, the industry ‘buys’ or hires corpsards from the State by offering them high-paying and prestigious job positions. The rationale is to gain personal access to government officials, obtain governmental inside information, and seek favourable legislation and government contracts. Consequently, pantouflage raises ethical problems of duty and vested interests resulting from the boundary between public and private spheres becoming obscured. A number of legal safeguards are in place to try and prevent such conflicts of interest arising. For example, civil servants are prohibited from moving to a company they have supervised, advised or drawn up a contract with in the previous three years. A special ethics commission (commission de déontologie de la fonction publique) is in charge of ruling on pantouflage secondments, although this has not always been sufficient to prevent perceived conflicts of interest. For example, in 2009 François Pérol was accused of a conflict of interest when he became CEO of BPCE, France’s second-largest bank. BPCE had been created from the merger of two banks, Banque Populaire and Caisses d’Epargne. Pérol was said to have overseen the merger as an economic advisor to President Nicolas Sarkozy, but did not inform the ethics commission of his move (The Economist 2014). Two members of the commission resigned in protest, and Pérol was prosecuted following formal complaints by anti-corruption pressure groups and banking trade unions (ibid.). Nevertheless, the Paris Court acquitted François Pérol in September 2015.
Retro pantouflage refers to the practice of coming back from pantouflage to take a civil service position again. The corpsards who choose retro pantouflage may expect an important position in exchange for their financial ‘sacrifice’ in rejoining the public sector. One controversial example of retro pantouflage concerns François Villeroy de Galhau, who held many prestigious civil service positions including Counsellor of the Prime Minister of France and Head of Cabinet of the Minister of the Economy. He opted for pantouflage from 2003 to 2015, his last position being at BNP Paribas, a French multinational bank and financial service company. When the French president proposed his candidacy for the position of Governor of the Bank of France, 150 French economists denounced his nomination in an open letter published in Le Monde. They objected that his nomination posed a serious conflict of interests because, having served the banking industry, he could hardly be expected to monitor the banks with impartiality and independence just a few months later. However, his candidacy was approved by Parliament and he became the Governor of the Bank of France in November 2015.
To better understand why industry is so interested in attracting corpsards, it is important to understand how they are selected, trained and developed. Corpsards’ solidarity is rooted firmly in their sense of being part of an elite: members are very conscious of their common values forged during a tough entrance contest and a highly competitive learning process (Kessler 1986). The members of the Grands Corps de l’Etat are mainly (although not exclusively) the top-ranking graduates from the French elite Grandes Ecoles (graduate schools): the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA, National School of Administration) which produces entrants to the Grand Administrative Corps of the State, and the Ecole Polytechnique which produces entrants to the Grand Technical Corps of the State. The Grandes Ecoles may be compared to Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge Universities) in the UK or to the Ivy league in the USA. Unlike French universities, which do not have the right to select their students, Grandes Ecoles select their students by means of a tough entrance contest focused on strong mathematical or cultural knowledge and skills (Barsoux and Lawrence 1991). In order to pass the contest, students enrol in two-year preparatory classes, known as classes préparatoires or simply prépas.
Top ranking graduates can choose which grand corps they wish to join. As the ENA, Polytechnique and the ENS are civil servant schools, their students are already technically civil servants during their studies, and are obliged to give ten years of service to the State. Corpsards receive challenging assignments and strategic responsibilities within the civil service from the beginning of their careers. These elite state development opportunities together with the elite academic legitimacy enables corpsards to develop skills and networks that are crucial for their careers (Bauer and Cohen 1981). Thus, the grands corps possess a form of ‘double capital’: social capital of relationships at the highest level, and technical capital of knowledge and methods (Kessler 1986).
According to Bauer and Bertin-Mourot (1996), 44.5 per cent of top managers in major French firms had previous experience in the senior civil service, being recruited externally and appointed (‘helicoptered’ or ‘parachuted’) to the top positions. As a consequence of the importance of pantouflage (and thus the grands corps and Grandes Ecoles) in French business networks, the number of self-educated executives among leaders of large firms is particularly low in France (Roussillon and Bournois 2002). Thus, some studies of Grand corps de l’Etat are devoted to the careers of énarques (e.g. Bouzidi et al. 2010) or careers of top managers in general (e.g. Bauer and Bertin-Mourot 1996; Davoine and Ravasi 2013). The former studied a sample of civil administrators who had graduated from the ENA and been assigned to the Ministry of Finance from 1960 to 1992. They found that pantouflage is a common practice: in a 20-year career, 40 per cent of finance directors have at least one spell in the private sector, a percentage that rises to 60 per cent in the course of a 30-year career (Bouzidi et al. 2010).
The career path of top managers in France is called the Latin model, and is characterised by high inter-functional and inter-company mobility. The Latin model relies on the selection of top managers in relation to their educational qualifications, i.e. corpsards or alumni of other elite Grandes Ecoles (Evans et al. 1989). More recent research by Davoine and Ravasi (2013) has shown that the model is still functioning in the same way. In France, one-fifth of top managers (and a third of CEOs) in the study sample had previous experience as a senior civil servant, while in Germany and the UK only 3 per cent of top managers had civil service experience. Moreover, 38 per cent of university-educated top managers in France are graduates of the École Polytechnique, HEC or ENA. For comparison purposes, only 14 per cent of university-educated top managers in the United Kingdom graduated from Oxford or Cambridge (Davoine and Ravasi 2013).
- Hall, E.T. and Hall, M.R. 1990. Understanding Cultural Differences. Germans, French, and Americans, London: Intercultural Press.