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French MPs on the Fringes

About : Étienne Ollion, Les candidats. Novices et professionnels de la politique, Puf


by Rémi Lefebvre , 9 November
translated by Susannah Dale



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The 2017 legislative election, which resulted in a landslide victory for La République en Marche, brought up the question of change in the political profession. Étienne Ollion shows that the National Assembly under Macron has done little to renew political practices, often sidelining newly elected members.

In political science, current events sometimes upset research results and force researchers back to the drawing board. For many years, the political scientist Étienne Ollion has been helping to renew the sociology of political staff and political professionalisation. A few months before the 2017 French presidential election, Ollion and his colleagues Julien Boelaert and Sébastien Michon published a landmark study that brought our knowledge of members of parliament (MPs) up to date (Métier: député, published by Raisons d’Agir). The survey covered five parliamentary terms (from 1978 to 2017) and 2400 full individual careers. One of its main contributions was to show that the ’queue’ to enter the National Assembly had grown longer. The time that an elected representative, an employee or a permanent member of staff spent waiting had increased from 5.7 years to 11.6 years for first-time MPs. To enter the hemicycle, they had to go through a long probationary period, wait and learn to be patient without giving up, because the struggle for professional positions had become increasingly bitter. These longer time frames were exacerbated by the growing market for paid positions in politics, particularly as assistants or employees of elected representatives [1]. Being an aide to an elected representative is a waiting game, increasingly predisposing the individual to become an MP and thus making the task more attractive. Nearly one third of the MPs elected in 2012 had previously held this type of position.

However, the ’disruptive’ electoral cycle of 2017 belied this trend [2]. The National Assembly that was elected following Emmanuel Macron’s presidential win was marked by a massive and historic renewal (almost as significant as that observed in November 1958 at the beginning of the Fifth Republic). It was made up of 72% first-time MPs, as opposed to one third normally (68% in 1958). The average age of MPs was much lower, falling from 56 in 2012 to 49 in 2017. The renewal was not social (the share of MPs from higher social classes had never been never so high) but rather political: the elected members of the République en Marche party had spent an average of 5.7 years in politics before the election, compared to 20 years for the elected members of the Les Républicains and the Parti Socialiste. The queue had melted away. In his latest book Les candidats. Novices et professionnels de la politique, Étienne Ollion scrutinises these new MPs who have withstood the test of power. His research has led him to strongly modify the renewal argument. The fledgling MPs were the endorsement for a system that has not truly been transformed or reformed. The notion of a queue has in fact been reinforced. More generally, the book offers an overall analysis of the contemporary political condition defined as “the shared social and material framework in which politicians operate and exist” (p. 173).

Revisiting the issue of political professionalisation

In recent years, political sociology has focused closely on political professionalisation. The term ’political professional’ has become commonplace in academic circles and the political sphere alike, and is often used indiscriminately (this term is not considered to be very socially acceptable and has become a social type and a stigma, criticised by Emmanuel Macron in 2017). Étienne Ollion’s approach is first and foremost based on a critique of the ambiguities of this process and these notions.

First of all, political professionalisation refers to the careers of politicians, the paths and curricula they follow, and the resulting social selection and elective longevity. One of the new phenomena observed in the political field is that more and more elected representatives have never made a living solely from politics (before making a living from their terms in office, they worked in roles linked to politics). Second, to become a professional means to tend to make a living from politics, i.e. to be paid for the elective or institutional positions held (this is not a new phenomenon, and was indeed analysed by Max Weber at the beginning of the 20th century). The third aspect relates to the appropriation of skills, know-how, behaviour and an ethos required for the occupation of institutional positions. This professionalism is often acquired on the job and takes time. These dimensions are nevertheless rarely linked together in existing analyses. For Étienne Ollion, the notion of professionalisation is problematic because it subsumes relationships with politics and trajectories that are very different. While the professionalization of a sector of activity has indeed taken place, in the sense of ’the autonomization of a space endowed with its own rules and with preferential means of access’ (p. 87), there are very different types of ’professionals’ that should be differentiated. Learning dynamics also need to be analysed further. What does the inclusion of an individual in the political field do to him/her? What practices does it produce? What is the effect of time in politics? This process-based approach forms the core of the book and lends it great originality.

The book’s strength lies in the way it combines various methods of analysis, both qualitative and quantitative, which are rarely used together. The book is based on an impressive body of statistical data: the database built from 1978, the sociography of the National Assembly elected in 2017, data collection on the practices of all the MPs of the 15th legislature (legislative production, media visibility, written questions, room reservations, exercise of functions in parliament) processed by a statistical technique derived from artificial intelligence (self-organising maps) and analyses of biographical sequences. These materials are enriched by ethnographic observations carried out thanks to an entry permit to the National Assembly, and interviews. The author covers (almost) all aspects of parliamentary life. Two small weaknesses can be pointed out: the book overlooks constituency work, an essential facet of parliamentary activity; and could perhaps have made an in-depth study of a few individual careers to give more sociological flesh and blood to the analysis.

The illusion of change based on political renewal alone

A political renewal did take place in 2017, but it did not produce the expected change. This is the book’s central theory: the first-time MPs endorsed through the election of Emmanuel Macron did not succeed in making their mark. The promises of change brought about through renewal have not been kept [3]. The newly elected officials, recruited for the most part following a call for candidates via a digital platform, were strongly promoted by the République en Marche. Their amateurism and their links with civil society were held up as a symbol of a new way of doing politics. But on closer inspection, new MPs had no influence and were sidelined in the National Assembly. During their term of office, they held subordinate positions, had very little media visibility and were used mainly to ’make up the numbers’ during votes and to fill the benches of the hemicycle (hence the stigma of ’Playmobil’ MPs that has been attached to them).

The book does show that first-time MPs learn about politics, its constraints and its ways of doing things. In one particularly interesting section, Etienne Ollion analyses how they incorporate the rhythms of politics ‒ the way time expands yet slows down. To be a politician means adapting to a total, invasive activity and to an extremely busy schedule [4]. More counter-intuitively, it means learning to wait and to be bored, which fuels a feeling of uselessness, which is particularly prevalent among MPs who were private sector executives before being elected. It means accepting constant public scrutiny of one’s personal life over which one no longer has control. Finally, it means mastering a competitive world ‒ whose cut-throat nature is precisely described in the book ‒ where you have to “hit out”, learn to take a hit, and play what is known as “political politics”.

However, although newcomers learn and progress, they are dominated in parliament. By whom? Analysing sequences allows the author to pinpoint a profile of MPs who are also newly elected but who have accumulated experience as parliamentary assistants or in ministerial cabinet offices (the share of former political assistants among MPs rose from 24% to 33% between 2012 and 2017). These more experienced elected representatives have a head start. They master the institutional codes and know the tricks of the trade, which are all the more difficult to acquire as they result from practical experience and knowledge of the institution’s mysterious processes. The National Assembly as presented in the book is therefore a hierarchical and differentiated space marked by power relations in which newcomers are dominated.

The figure of the first-time MP was a symbol of the new National Assembly in 2017, but Étienne Ollion shows that the main dynamic of change was more of an ’updraft’ than a political renewal. Emmanuel Macron’s victory opened a window of opportunity to allow the entry of newcomers into politics, but it also boosted the career paths of already experienced actors. It forced open a new space of possibilities, a prospect of victory in the legislative elections for actors who had no chance within their party or hope of ever becoming an MP. In short, the queue was sidestepped. But politics is all about experience, learning and resources. The cursus honorum that gave aides a key position was quickly re-established in the new post-2017 institutional configuration, and the parliamentary game was therefore not fundamentally altered.

The time spent in the political arena and its corridors shapes elected representatives. The concept of queuing ‒ the book’s theoretical compass ‒ remains relevant. It is a form of social organisation: queues ’socialise’ individuals, ’select’ them, ’individualise’ them. They are shaped and they conform. Waiting confers a sense of legitimacy and empowerment (to intervene, to stand out, to take responsibility). It disciplines and teaches a sense of limits, even if the lack of expectation also confers a feeling of authorisation (it is the absence of doubt that allows one to dare).

The downgrading of parliament: “working more to earn less”

In addition to the image of the novice MP, the National Assembly elected in 2017 has been associated with another trend: the domination of higher social categories (65% of MPs). But once again, Étienne Ollion asks us to put the phenomenon into context. It is true that there have never been so many private sector executives and university graduates, or so few employees and labourers in parliament. However, a process of downgrading is underway. A seat in parliament becoming a far less attractive option for the upper fringes of the privileged classes. The figures speak for themselves. The share of the liberal professions fell from 12% to 6% between 1978 and 2012. The drop in the number of senior civil servants is also significant: from 13.4% to 6.6% (from 7% to 5% for graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration ‒ ENA).
How can we explain this downgrading from above? The weakening of parliamentarianism (the party-liners or ’Playmobil’ MPs) and public mistrust of politicians who enjoy an increasingly fragile ’social esteem’ (according to Max Weber’s meaning) contribute to this. But Étienne Ollion establishes other factors with great rigour and precision. MPs’ job conditions have changed. It now means “working more to earn less” (page 230). The parliamentary workload has increased substantially. The number of hours that parliament spends in session has increased from 25,000 hours at the beginning of the 20th century, to 50,000 until the 1990s, to 60,000 hours today. The Assembly sits 125 days a year. Parliamentary activity is more restrictive and controlled (since 2017, MPs have had to declare their assets publicly, justify all their expenses, etc.).

However, at the same time, MPs make less money. With Éric Buge, Étienne Ollion has analysed MPs’ income since 2014. They continue to earn the salary of a social elite. Between the 1950s and the 2000s, MPs were among the top 1% of French earners. Since then, however, there has been a downward trend: MPs are now in the top 3%. The parliamentary allowance is decreasing slightly in constant francs. This drop is the result of the strong increase of high incomes among the upper social categories. Senior civil servants now prefer ministerial cabinet offices to politics, as this allows them to make use of the revolving door and access highly paid positions in the private sector. The queue is a disincentive, especially for those who have other career alternatives. All in all, the job of MP has lost some of its nobility. Perhaps it is becoming what David Graeber calls a ’bullshit job’, i.e. an activity that has little meaning for those who do it.

Etienne Ollion’s book is convincing thanks to its detailed analysis, the volume and diversity of the materials used, the constant dialogue with foreign literature, and the fluidity of the style and reasoning, which allows it to reach an audience that goes beyond the specialized public. A few months before the legislative elections of June 2022, however, the political news was reporting another enigma. Although newcomers were relegated, overlooked, often even humiliated, and although many of them saw their political experience as a mere parenthesis, as of February 2022 only about 50 of the majority MPs were considering not standing for election again [5]. The République en Marche now has a new discourse. The President of the National Assembly declared: “In politics, renewal is about ideas, projects and practices, not about people” [6]. This leads us to formulate new hypotheses. Did the outgoing MPs acquire a taste for the game? Did they gain a form of material comfort through their term in office that they are unwilling to give up (contrary to what has been reported in the French press, few elected representatives have experienced a drop in their standard of living by entering parliament)? Are they seeking to capitalise on their accumulated experience? Are they at last playing the waiting game?

Étienne Ollion, Les candidats. Novices et professionnels de la politique, Paris, Puf, 2021. 304 p., 22 €.

by Rémi Lefebvre, 9 November

To quote this article :

Rémi Lefebvre, « French MPs on the Fringes », Books and Ideas , 9 November 2022. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL : https://booksandideas.net/French-MPs-on-the-Fringes.html

Nota Bene:

If you want to discuss this essay further, you can send a proposal to the editorial team (redaction at laviedesidees.fr). We will get back to you as soon as possible.

Footnotes

[1As a result of decentralisation, there were 7,500 local staff positions at the end of the 2000s. This number does not include over 3,000 parliamentary assistants.

[2Emmanuel Macron’s victory called into question a certain number of routine interpretations of political life. See Dolez Bernard, Fretel Julien, Lefebvre Rémi, L’entreprise Macron. Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, ’Libres cours Politique’, 2019.

[3More generally, this is one of the conclusions reached in a collective work on Emmanuel Macron’s five-year term: Dolez Bernard, Douillet Anne-Cécile, Fretel Julien, Lefebvre Rémi, L’entreprise Macron à l’épreuve du pouvoir, Grenoble, Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, ’Libres cours Politique’, 2019.

[4See the contribution by Laurent Godmer and Guillaume Marrel on the timeframes inherent in the political process, forthcoming.

[5According to the estimate by the newspaper Le Monde. See the article, “Il faut prendre conscience que la politique c’est du temps long’”, 22 February 2022.

[6Idem.

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