The French political class

by Chris Bertram on July 10, 2003

I was daydreaming earlier today about a moment in my adolescence. It is 1974 and I’m with my French exchange partner playing a pinball machine in a cafe on the banks of the Dordogne. The radio is on, and the news comes that President Giscard has just sacked his Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac.

Fast forward to 2003 (29 years later) and Giscard is presiding over the European constitutional convention and Chirac is President of the Republic. Chirac had first entered the cabinet in 1968. Not that it is just the right. Michel Rocard, whose party, the PSU, had some prominence in 1968 cropped up in the news the other day. And Mitterrand (b. 1916) held his first ministerial post in 1947 and finished up being President from 1981 to 1995 before popping his clogs the following year.

Look at the British political class and the picture is completely different. There’s no-one left from 1974, let alone 1968. A few politicians have a good run: Major Healey, Quintin Hogg – but it is nothing compared to the dominance of the French political scene by a few dinosaurs. In fact I can’t think of any democracy with where politicians last as long as in France. A few in the US, perhaps (Thurmond, Mayor Daley) but not ones who ever formed the core of a national administration. Explanations? Counterexamples?



Raven 07.10.03 at 5:12 pm

Part of the explanantion probably has to do with the French systems of elite schools, out of which people for high administrative positions are usually recruited, and which is highly competitive to get into. Of particular importance is the ENA (Ecole Nationale d’Administration), many politicians graduates of that school. Admission to these schools means admission to an elite, and the networking that occurs there lasts a lifetime, with profound influence for appointment decisions later. Of course, there must be other factors at work as well, which have to explain the voting preferences of the people.


Trapper John 07.10.03 at 5:18 pm

There’s one other nation where this happens: Israel. How long have Peres and Sharon been at the top of the heap?


Thlayli 07.10.03 at 5:28 pm

Donald Rumsfeld, occupying the same Cabinet seat he held under President Ford.


Ikram Saeed 07.10.03 at 5:36 pm

Henry — what country employs you?

Jean Chretien entered Parliament as a young man in the mid-sixties. He held Cabinet positions throughout the trudeau years, including Justice, Indian Affiars and Finance. He was out of politics (officially) during Turner’s leadership from 84 to 90, but them took over the Liberal party.

Not just forty years in politics, almost 30 years in government.

And he is, during the school year at least, your Prime Minister.


Ikram Saeed 07.10.03 at 5:37 pm

Scratch that last comment — I thought this was a Henry farrell post. It’s not. Sorry.


Matthew Yglesias 07.10.03 at 5:40 pm

In the US, at least, the fact that the top office (along with the governorships that most future presidents use as the basis for their campaigns) is term limited surely has something to do with it. Still, Richard Nixon became Vice-President in 1952 and would have remained in office as President until 1976 had not Watergate forced him from office. Similarly, Bob Dole was the GOP’s Vice-Presidential nominee (and a legislative leader) back in ’76 and stayed on as big player in the Senate until his failed presidential campaign 20 years later.


Scott Martens 07.10.03 at 5:55 pm

Do dynasties count? There’s been a Bush somewhere in government continuously since at least 1952.


Chris Bertram 07.10.03 at 6:02 pm

I just remembered that I had a copy of Butler and Sloman’s British Political Facts 1900-1979 in my office. There was a change of government in 1974, so I could check whether there was any Tory or Labour politician holding office then who has been anywhere near a ministerial post recently. From all the pages of names there’s just one: Michael Meacher, Under Secretary of State at the Department of Industry 1974-75 and Minister for the Environment until Blair sacked him a few weeks ago.


Doug 07.10.03 at 7:30 pm

As long as we’re toting up counterexamples, let’s not forget 16 years of Helmut Kohl (much as we’d perhaps like to). Konrad Adenauer’s political career began in 1905 and ended in 1966; from the mid-20s until 1933, and again from 1945 until 1966 he was important in national politics.

And as for explaining France, at the presidential level, seven-year terms make a big difference. Serve two complete terms and you’re ahead of every US President ever. Chances are good that you don’t vault into the Elysee from a minor post, so that makes for long careers at the top national level. Five-year terms (is there a limit of two?) will change that some, but it will be 2007 before France is likely to have a baby-boomer as the head of state, a good decade and a half later than the US. By the time he (the chances of a female President of France being slim indeed) finishes his first term, Generation X will be banging on the White House door in America, while Britain will have had 15 years of boomer leadership, and Germany 14.

If you want to see some potentially very long careers, look east of the Oder and the Neisse. The clever twenty-somethings who landed in ministerial offices after the fall of the Wall (almost everywhere except Poland) have prospects for half a century in top-drawer poiltics. In 2001, for example, the Estonian ministers of defense and education were both younger than 30. Since most of them are from smaller countries with parliamentary systems, the revolving door will likely be good to them. I’m not sure I’m very enthusiastic about Viktor Orban as the grand old man of Europe in 2042; Gabor Demszky, maybe, or Ivan Miklos…


Chirag Kasbekar 07.10.03 at 7:34 pm

>>in fact I can’t think of any democracy with where politicians last as long as in France.>>


Have you seen our prime minister — Atal Behari Vajpayee? He can barely walk. He’s not the only one.

Ours is a gerontocracy, plain and simple. Reasons I haven’t really thought carefully about, even though I have wondered.



Acer 07.10.03 at 8:07 pm

There are a couple of other reasons. First, French political leaders never go into the wilderness after a defeat – they always have some other political job to fall back on. Chirac was Mayor of Paris after he was fired by Giscard. Juppe who was a disaster as Prime Minister and lost the election to the Socialists is now mayor of Bordeaux, and Parliamentary leader of the new Gaullist party. He is the likely Gaullist candidate at the next presidential election. Giscard after his defeat by Mitterand simply started again from scratch in I think the Auvergne. Mitterand himself was always deputy for the Nievre during his 23 wilderness years after the formation of the 5th Republic. Jospin amazed everybody in 2002 by refusing to stand for the National Assembly elections after his defeat in the 1st round of the Presidentials. But already he is making a comeback of sorts – a speech here, an interview there, a dinner somewhere else.

A second reason is that French political parties are loose coalitions of groups gathered around political leaders. This is quite acceptable. You may lose power but your group is intact. The socialists have Jospin, Fabius, Hollande and other groups. The right have groups for supporters of Juppe, Raffarin Sarkozy and so on.

Finally the French like their leaders old. Think Petain, De Gaulle, Mitterand. It is no coincidence that the youngest 5th Republic President (Giscard) is the only one to have been defeated for re-election, and of course defeated by an older man. Now that he is pushing 80 he still fancies his chances.


Patrick Nielsen Hayden 07.10.03 at 8:24 pm

Daley wasn’t Chicago’s mayor for that long — about twenty years. Perhaps you’re conflating him with his son?


Charlie B 07.10.03 at 8:26 pm

I’m afraid I do think the original premise is incorrect. The Senate has an extraordinary number of long-serving members, and since even after reform of the chamber’s procedures seniority remains at the heart of political influence, they are important national political players. The long-serving senator used to be even more common, but I have chosen the following as examples of today’s cadre:

SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D, Mass.) Nothing need be said.

W Virginia House of Delegates, W Virginia Senate, US House of Representatives and then
1958 to present US Senate
1977-88 Senate Democratic Party Leader
1977-80, 1987-88 Senate Majority Leader
1981-86 Senate Minority Leader
1989-94, 2000-2001 President pro tem of the Senate (next in line to presidency after Vice Pres)

1954-59 Served in Hawaii Territorial House of Representatives and Senate
1959 On Statehood elected Hawaii’s first Congressman
1962 to present, US Senator (currently serving 7th 6-year term)
1973-74 Leading role in Nixon impeachment hearings (Watergate Committee)
1987 Chaired Iran-Contrta hearings

1948 S.C. House of Representatives (elected Speaker)
1955 Lieut Governor
1958 Governor of South Carolina
1966 to present US Senator for S.C.

1956-60 An assistant US Attorney
1969-74 Under Secretary of Navy and then Secretary of the Navy
1978 to present US Senator for Virginia

1966 W. Virginia House of Delegates
1968-73 W. Virginia Secretary of State
1976-84 Governor, W. Virginia
1984 to present, US Senator for W. Virginia

Ronald Reagan was widely seen as an old man by the time be became President in 1981 (having been Governor of Calif. in the 1960s). Many others have had long careers built on service in several branches and/or at several levels of government, especially moving (both ways) between US and state office.

If France has its share of long-serving politicians I would guess it is because of the powers of appointment of the President with respect to the legislature; and to the fact that politicians can hold multiple office, so everyone keeps a regional “base” by holding on to mayoral or another important local office whatever they do nationally, which means they don’t fall out of the “circle” when they are without national office.


Rich Rostrom 07.10.03 at 11:06 pm

Chicago Mayor Daley I was in office 1955-1976 (when he died); only 21 years, and he was _very_ long-serving by American standards. The present Mayor is his son, who was first elected in 1989.

As for Bushes, there was no Bush in government at any level 1963-1966, 1977-1980, and 1993-1994.
The two Gores were in office from 1939 through 2000, with the only gap being 1971-76.


aphrael 07.10.03 at 11:35 pm

Arguably the BRD had this kind of continuity- Willy Brandt remained the most powerful figure within the SPD until his death, despite resigning under a puff of scandal in 1972; he’d been prominent since the early 1960s.

And the US is by no means immune, either; Hiram Johnson was elected governor of California in 1910, then ran for the Senate, and served until his death in 1945.


Charlie B 07.11.03 at 12:13 am

Of course, US historical examples are legion. United States Senator John STENNIS (D, Miss.) who served under oath of office continually from 1928 (Mississippi House of Representatives) to 1989 (US Senate since 1947). His seniority gave him Chairmanship of the most important committees, including Appropriations and Armed Services.


Chris Young 07.11.03 at 9:57 am

Olof Palme entered the Swedish govt in 1962 and was assassinated in office as PM in 1986. He was 59, could have been good for a few more years…


Chris Young 07.11.03 at 10:14 am

… or Eamonn de Valera, elected President of the Dail, 1918, recognised by the British government as President of the Dail, 1921, retired as President of the Republic of Ireland 1973 (55 years at the top). Perhaps the issue is the brevity of British political careers?


Hugo 07.11.03 at 10:25 am

Austalia’s John Howard has been around for an eternity – he was the treasurer under Malcom Fraser in the mid-seventies. His predecessor, Paul Keating, was a minister under Whitlam in the early seventies.


Richard Bayley 07.11.03 at 2:01 pm

I’m surprised that Chris didn’t mention the French far left as well. I believe that the two most recognizable ’68ers, Krivine and Kohn-Bendit, are still elected members of the European parliament.


Charlie B. 07.11.03 at 2:57 pm

Indeed – and what about Arlette Laguiller — how many times now has she been the Lutte Ouvrier presidential candidate?


dsquared 07.11.03 at 3:35 pm

Hard to believe, but the Reverend Ian Paisley was once a young man.


John 07.11.03 at 4:05 pm

Britain used to be a lot more like France. Note Churchill, for instance, who was elected to Parliament in 1906, entered the Cabinet as President of the Board of Trade in 1908, and finally retired as PM in 1955 (and stayed in the Commons until his death in 1965). And there are numerous figures like that, especially in the nineteenth century. Palmerston entered government as Secretary at War in 1809 and died as PM in 1865. Gladstone served in Peel’s second cabinet in the 1840s and finally resigned as PM in 1894. (One account I read notes that he knew both Canning and Lloyd George!)

In fact, I’d say the recent newness of British politicians says more that British politics have gotten rather weird in recent years than anything else. I mean, that there was practically nobody from Callaghan’s cabinet in Blair’s initial cabinet was pretty atypical, historically. (To compare to a similar gap in earlier history, a goodly number of the members of the Whig government that went out in 1807 were still around when the Whigs returned to power 23 years later in 1830.)


Nick 07.11.03 at 4:51 pm

With regard to John’s post above, Churchill was first elected in 1900, but didn’t stand in the 1964 election. There were a couple of brief interludes where he had no seat, but he was effectively an MP for 64 years, with a good proportion of those as a member of the Cabinet or as a senior opposition figure.

Thinking about the US, Bill Clinton was originally elected as Arkansas’ Attorney General in either 74 or 76, I believe, and if the rumours are true and he stands for Mayor of NYC in 2005 that could extend his career to 30+ years. The same could be said for Hillary as well, though she has only stood for election in 2000.

As for Britain, it does seem that we are in the middle of a kind of changing of the generational guard – Blair and Kennedy were first elected in 1983, IDS in 1992, but it remains to be seen how long some careers will last. There’s a large number of MPs in their 30s and 40s who could remain in office for a long time.


John 07.11.03 at 8:25 pm

For Americans, one ought to mention Donald Rumsfeld, elected to Congress in 1962. That’s forty years right there.

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