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1On 16 December 2006, the mayor of Paris inaugurated the capital city’s first tram, the T3, which runs along the southern section of the boulevards Maréchaux. In the many speeches that he gave in connection with this event, Mayor Bertrand Delanoë tirelessly repeated that the tram constituted a “modern” solution that would solve Parisians’ transit problems. The tram was an “urban” solution which allowed for the renewal of “neglected” urban areas, [1] and thereby contributed to a major “ecological” shift in transportation policy, which was better suited to tackle the problem of pollution. [2] In other words, the mayor of Paris articulated a policy statement that linked an instrument – the tram – with two problems that it was supposed to solve, and with a broader public policy that it was attempting to reform. Inseparable from its enunciator and from the conditions of its enunciation, this policy statement also helped to transform the decision to build the tram into a visible sign of the mayor’s political willingness to appear as “modern” and as “ecological” as his tram project : attentive to the expectations of his fellow citizens, concerned for the future of humanity, and capable of responding to crucial problems through concrete “actions”. Moreover, media reaction hit the nail on the head in highlighting the importance of this decision, signalling it as one of the mayor’s main sources of legitimacy and a key to his possible electoral victory in 2008. [3] The tram project statement thus encapsulated not only the definition of an object, which it transformed into a “solution”, but also a theory of policy change in which the mayor is a leader capable of deciding on and reforming public policies in order to address the problems of his fellow citizens.

2Nevertheless, the theory of policy change contained within these kinds of statements is in general quite at odds with what researchers discover when studying the dynamics of change in action. These researchers list a number of very different phenomena to explain such dynamics, including : the complexity of decision-making processes ; [4] the fragmentation of power ; [5] the weight of constraints – be they institutional, [6] systemic [7] or cognitive ; [8] and the role of experts, [9] networks, [10] and special interest groups. [11] Furthermore, researchers analysing political discourse on policy change have shown that, in reality, changes are never as great as those initially announced. Finally, researchers have also pointed out that processes can only be read over the medium-term, [12] and that a solution generally exists prior to the problems it is supposed to resolve.

3The disjuncture between how policy change is described in political discourse and how it is actually observed by researchers has led many authors to relegate this discourse to a secondary position. [13] Instead, they have sought to discern, in the most objective way possible, all of the things that such discourse seeks to mask : namely, practices, ideas, habits, constraints, paradigms, interests, values and so forth. In this vein, Patrick Hassenteufel has suggested that “establishing distance from political rhetoric and symbolism is the first main concern of any analysis of policy change”. [14] In the introduction to their collected volume on public policy during Sarkozy’s presidency, Jacques de Maillard and Yves Surel also highlight the existence of a “gap between the aggressive discourse of political will, and the minimal real changes that occurred”, arguing that the only true “rupture” during Sarkozy’s mandate was the “tone” of his discourse. [15] Reduced to its purely rhetorical dimension, discourse is generally considered to be a mere illusion at worst, and, at best, an attempt at symbolic justification realised after the fact and without any influence on the processes of policy change.

4But even if we accept that policy statements might not describe the reality of the processes of change at work, should we then infer that they play no role at all in this change ? In analysing change, have we forgotten that discourse does not only have a descriptive dimension, but also – as authors as diverse as Wittgenstein, Austin, Perelman, Foucault, Edelman, Searle, Bourdieu and Habermas [16] have illustrated – a definitional, cognitive, normative, illocutionary, practical, communicational and indeed prescriptive dimension, especially when one takes into account the pragmatics of discourse [17] – i.e., the act of making statements when socially re-contextualised – as opposed to its simple discursive content ?

5The fact that the different dimensions of discourse are often overlooked when trying to describe the processes of policy change is even more surprising, given that researchers do take these dimensions into account when analysing how public problems are placed on the political agenda. Without entering into the numerous debates that can be found in the literature on the sociology of social problems, [18] it is interesting to note that most authors attempt to trace the construction [19] of a problem starting with the trajectory of its original statement. First the statement renders a given situation problematic and “unacceptable”, [20] then a collective actor is designated as “responsible”, [21] a “public” [22] is identified, an injunction to act is broadcast, and finally, multiple sources of support are aggregated.

6The hypothesis that this article seeks to develop is the following : mobilising the plurality of discourse dimensions in order to comprehend not only how problems are formed, but also how new policy proposals are developed and institutionalised, opens new avenues for understanding policy change and determining the influence of political statements. To this end, this article examines a phase of public policy that is too often overlooked in policy analyses : namely, “policy formulation”. [23] It is during this phase that proposals take shape and gain meaning, before being incorporated into the repertoire of available solutions. By helping to transform a proposal into a problem’s solution, an instrument into a lever for change, a collective actor into the “owner” of a given solution, or a leader into the primary “decision-maker”, the process of discourse construction and its transformation into a stabilised utterance regarding change is in fact inseparable from policy change itself.

7From this perspective, the case of the Parisian tram line that I will examine below is significant not only because it went through a long “formulation” phase (the project was elaborated over more than a decade), but also because it was the site of clashes between two distinct proposals that both appeared to be “good” candidates for change, before one won out over the other. Two elements make this case even more interesting. Not only did the mayor of Paris hesitate between the two proposals for several years, thus allowing us to expose the strategies of persuasion, conviction and influence that represent as many uses of discourse “in action” ; but, and more importantly, in light of the motley composition of the two coalitions which cut across all of the large organisations involved in the project, it remains very difficult to see the victory of one proposal over the other as anything but a complex discursive process composed of attempts, failures, agreements and struggles between various actors.

8In order to better understand how solutions are formed and then institutionalised, this article makes an important heuristic choice ; namely, it concentrates on three key moments of this process, each of which reveals the importance of a specific and distinct dimension of discourse. Firstly, we shall examine the activities involved in the formation of policy statements and how, by assembling disparate elements, they grant meaning to an instrument and transform it into a credible “solution”. However, we will also examine the costs and constraints imposed by these “language games”. [24] Secondly, we shall focus on the dissemination of these utterances, which relies on the argumentative dimension of discourse, and on the activities of conviction, persuasion and agreement that this dimension makes possible. Finally, we will take into account the confrontational dimension of discourse, examining the power relations and clashes that governed the debate over the tram’s route.

Methodological annex

The empirical section of this article is based on a study of the Parisian tram system carried out between 2007 and 2010. The study was developed using a sizable collection of documents including a press review, the transcription of debates in the Parisian municipal council, technical dossiers prepared by the RATP, the APUR, City Hall, the STIF, the DRE [25] and documents prepared by local civil society organisations (consumer and resident associations, etc.). It also draws on seventeen interviews, of between 1 hour and 15 minutes and 4 hours and 25 minutes, with project stakeholders, including political, technical and civil society actors.
The methodological decision made while conducting these interviews was to encourage the interviewee to reconstruct discussions and debates in which s/he participated. Particular attention was paid to the conflicts and agreements that occurred during these discussions, to the arguments exchanged and to the successive variations of the project that these discussions engendered. Hence the aim was to methodologically privilege the position of the interviewee as an “eyewitness” who recounts scenes s/he personally experienced, rather than as an analyst discussing the project with the researcher outside of the temporal context. In other words, analyses given by actors during the interviews were only taken into account if they could be repositioned as discursive practices that took place throughout the whole process.
The priority given to discursive interactions allowed me to establish an objectifiable perspective during the interviews, based on lived social situations that the actor attempted to recollect. The implicit hypothesis of such a method is that reflections on the project, just like coalitions between actors, are first forged during the course of these concrete interactions.
There is of course a very significant risk of distortion associated with the reconstruction of events after the fact. I attempted to mitigate this risk through the use of chronologically aligned elements that were brought into the interview to confirm or challenge the events recounted (such as press articles, meeting minutes, other eyewitness accounts). I also attempted to cross-reference eyewitness accounts recounting the same meeting or discussion. Finally, I assumed – an assumption which obviously merits further discussion – that the moments that actors remembered most clearly were those during which the project made significant progress.

Finding a problem that the tram line could solve : creating meaning through discourse

9The question of meaning is not new in the field of public policy analysis. [26] In France, it pervades the self-styled “cognitive” approaches [27] that study the role of representation in public policy. In these approaches, the issue of meaning surfaces at several levels.

10It is instrumental in showing that the role of a policy is not simply to solve problems, but also to advance a certain vision of the world and, as such, to contribute to the construction of a certain social order. [28] Analysing meaning also highlights how these representations strengthen the domination of a given social group. Finally, this perspective helps to explain the subjective behaviour of actors, who act in relation to these representations in order to maintain or change a policy. [29] At the international level, the question of meaning has been addressed by supporters of “discursive” approaches, [30] for whom a public policy can first and foremost be equated with a normative discourse about the world. [31]

11Nevertheless, all such attempts at studying meaning are confronted with the same paradox when they address the field of public policy : namely, the empirical incoherence of public action. How can one grasp the meaning of public action as a whole when it initially appears fragmentary and incoherent ? How can one identify a policy’s development and modifications without presupposing that public policy itself is coherent ? Does the researcher not risk imposing meaning and coherence onto a complex whole which might be neither of these things ? In any case, this is the primary criticism made by sociologists of public action regarding political scientists who study public policy. [32] Revealing the incoherence of public policies – whether that concerns how policy instruments are arbitrarily linked to one another, or the empirical discovery made by March, Cohen and Olsen, [33] according to which a solution generally pre-dates the problem it is supposed to solve – is in some ways very problematic for those who want to make meaning a central dimension of policy processes.

12But if researchers are not to impose meaning, at the risk of distorting their data by creating coherence where perhaps there is none, must they therefore be forced to abandon the quest for meaning altogether ? To answer this question, I suggest shifting focus away from observing public policy as an object towards the work of defining public policy as carried out by various actors. Meanwhile, we must avoid being “blinded by the signifier”, as Wittgenstein warned, by explicitly observing the “language games” [34] that form this meaning. The question is thus no longer whether researchers should prioritise a perspective which accounts for policy incoherence or one which imposes coherence where there may be none. Instead, we will examine how actors create coherence by defining public policies on the basis of disparate and fragmentary public interventions. Similarly, it is not merely a question of knowing whether the solution comes before or after the problem, but of observing how actors attempt to recreate order by transforming a given instrument into a problem’s “likely” solution.

13Bearing in mind these observations on the definitional work that takes place in relation to policy proposals, this article hypothesises that this work, which occurs throughout the entire process of proposal formulation, has an impact on the proposals themselves, whose content and form vary accordingly. In other words, in order to make a proposal compatible with the problem that it is designed to solve, and in order to enable it to survive the discursive challenges to which it will be submitted, actors must not shroud a proposal in discourse, as though the proposal was somehow unchanged by the words that define it ; actors must use discourse to redefine and transform it.

The three meanings of the Parisian tram

14In order to understand this work of redefinition, let us return to the example of the Parisian tram. Specifically, let us consider the manner in which, over the course of the different steps that won it a place on the agenda of possible solutions, it saw not only its meaning but also its form and physical route vary. In fact, a tram project in Paris was seriously considered on three separate occasions, and its meaning, form and route were redefined each time.

15The tram project first surfaced during the 1980s. At the time, it was the brainchild of a handful of technicians who conducted studies while working for the RATP, the APUR, the DRE, the STP and the SNCF, [35] and who specialised in these different types of transport. These actors attempted to implement a mode of rail-based transport in an abandoned urban zone : the Little Belt Railway (PCF – Petite Ceinture Ferroviaire). [36] While their reports did touch upon the problem of this urban wasteland, [37] they primarily emphasised the existence of another problem which rail transport could address : namely, the difficulty of travelling in a circular direction around Paris without being forced to travel through the centre. They thus highlighted the existence of a public of victims and identified the problem’s cause – the “star-shaped” distribution of transit lines that forced these victims to travel via the centre – and a solution : the implementation of a circular mode of transport along the Little Belt Railway. In other words, these actors used their reports to define a problem, a cause, a public, a policy and ultimately a solution. But they also used their reports to sequentially re-link these various elements into a cohesive policy statement ; the solutions proposed were first and foremost there to solve problems by correcting the adverse consequences of a previously implemented public policy.

16At this stage of the policy statement, only one route was envisioned – that of the Little Belt Railway linking the two Portes[38] at the south end of Paris, with the eventual aim of forming a complete loop – and four modes of rail transport (the tram, the regional express train, the subway or the VAL [light automatic vehicle]) [39] were proposed as possible means to solve the circular transit problem and rehabilitate the abandoned urban zone. In other words, by reducing the choice of route of the tram to a single possibility, and the possible solutions to rail-based means of transportation, the stated solution allowed for four different possible modes of transport. Nevertheless, these reports did not lead to any sort of implementation and ended up on the administration’s shelves.

17In 1993, the Parisian tram proposal was back on the agenda, not only taking on a new meaning but also following a new route. Taking advantage of the debate over the extension of the T2 tram to the edge of the city, which was to link Puteaux to Issy-Plaine – a proposal which had only recently been validated by the STP board of directors [40] – Parisian tram advocates proposed further extending the line in order to cross over Paris’s outer ring-road [le périphérique] and follow along the Little Belt Railway.

18The experts responsible for carrying out the study had already worked on the former project [41] and thus appended the tram project onto the planned extension. They set out to redefine not only the problem but also the solution, in the hopes of recycling their previous ideas. The problem was no longer that Parisians were unable to travel in a circular manner around the city, but that the T2 tramline provided suburbanites with no stops in the city. It was a question of giving new meaning to the tram project in order to present it as the solution to a problem. The tram was no longer one mode of urban transport among others, enabling rapid and circular movement for Parisians, but the mode of transport that would allow suburban commuters to cross the périphérique and reach several of Paris’s Portes. Hence, the Parisian tram was no longer the means to change a transport policy seen as too “star-shaped”, but instead the way to modify a transport policy that forced suburbanites to pass through the centre of Paris. With regard to the tram’s route, since it was no longer envisioned as a means to circumnavigate Paris, it was no longer circular in shape but serpentine. A change in the target group, a modification of the physical route and the impossibility of choosing any other mode of transport are in some ways the price that the project’s original advocates were forced to pay in order to graft their solution onto the extension of the T2 line. And yet, while this redefinition helped to foreground the Parisian tram project, it was not enough to help it see the light of day.

19It was not until 1995 that the project was again taken off the shelves and dusted off, this time for good. The issue was no longer the extension of the T2 tramline, but the city’s pollution during the summer of 1995. Taking advantage of the fact that the tram had reappeared on the political agenda, its advocates once again recycled their project, this time coupling it with a new problem. This new coupling not only modified the meaning of the tram project for a third time, but also helped to change the terms of the debate, the target public, the identified route, and the public policy that was to be transformed.

20The tram project’s re-emergence began with a warning sounded during the summer of 1995 by Airparif, the agency in charge of monitoring air quality in Paris. For the first time in the capital, the prefect [42] echoed this warning and “implored the residents of Île-de-France to minimise automobile use until Sunday 16 July in the evening”. [43] Pollution dominated the headlines of local newspapers and became an unacceptable problem for which the public expected a mayoral response.

21A few days later, the mayor of Paris organised a press conference during which he announced a series of new measures, including the tramway. [44] Below, I shall discuss the conditions that made it possible for the tram to figure on this list. First, however, let us consider the way in which the mayor and the tram’s advocates managed to redefine not only the problem, but also the tram project itself in order to make them fit neatly into a single policy statement.

22Firstly, the tram’s advocates began by designating the root cause of the problem : traffic. [45] The process of attaching a cause to a problem merits particular attention because it is not just a matter of causally linking two phenomena, in this case pollution and traffic. First and foremost, the goal is to replace an unsolvable problem with a solvable one. While the problem of pollution is very complex, including variables such as the weather, the strength of winds and the lie of the land, that of urban vehicular traffic simplifies the issue, mainly by singling out automobile drivers as concrete individuals against whom actions can be taken. In other words, sorting through all the possible candidates in order to discern a specific cause helped to shift the problem from pollution to traffic.

23Similarly, the tram solution was redefined in order to link it with the pollution problem. Its purpose was no longer responding to the difficulty of round-Paris transportation or catering to the needs of suburban residents, but rather solving the issue of pollution. In order to connect the problem to a solution, the actors shifted the problem towards its cause (automobile traffic), and the solution towards its anticipated outcome (a reduction in automobile traffic). This twofold shift helped to transform the problem into a “solvable” problem, and the solution into a “tailor-made” solution.

24This shift thus not only altered the tram’s significance (since its purpose was now fighting pollution), the public being victimised (now “Parisians” suffering the effects of pollution), and the guilty party (vehicular traffic), but also redefined its physical route. After September, the mayor no longer spoke of the tramline along the Little Belt Railway but along the “southern ring road” [Rocade sud]. He thus indicated the existence of not one but two potential routes to fight pollution, that of the Little Belt Railway and that of the boulevards Maréchaux.

25The important point is not that the revised policy statement introduced a new route, but rather that it made it possible. In other words, as long as the problem to be solved was the abandoned urban space of the Little Belt Railway, or the extension of the T2 line, there could be no place for an alternative route. The policy statement and the constraints on meaning that it imposed limited the field of possibilities. Yet, as soon as the problem was redefined as pollution, the choice of route was no longer pre-determined in the same manner. Although the mayor announced the extension of the T2 tramline in July of 1995, in September he modified his discourse to speak of the “southern ring road”.

26The production of a policy statement thus presents itself as a way to ascribe meaning to a proposal. It works through a specific process during which the various elements that constitute it are redefined, making it possible to package them as a whole. While this assemblage functions as a “language game”, this game nevertheless has its own rules which regulate the field of competing possibilities, and has substantial effects on both the problem and the solution.

Conviction and persuasion as the means for dissemination : the challenge of the argumentative struggle

27The production of a solution’s meaning is thus a delicate and costly operation, including for the solution itself. It presupposes respect for rules that offer certain opportunities while excluding others. But what is it that forces actors to respect these rules ? Why do they not simply link a problem to any solution they like, or even forego the creation of meaning and preserve the incoherence and fragmentation of public policies so often observed by researchers ?

28In order to understand the process of producing meaning, it is not enough to study the content of a statement, [46] one must also observe the conditions of enunciation in which a statement was made, the intentions of the actors who produced the statement, and the sometimes unintended effects that a statement may produce. What I am suggesting here is that meaning production does not only stem from a cognitive usage that helps to shape an actor’s thinking, as he or she seeks to imbue an action with meaning, but also from an argumentative usage that pertains to social interaction, whereby a speaker acts with the intention of persuading his or her interlocutor, in order to disseminate a given proposal.

29Thanks notably to the work of Charles Perelman [47] on rhetorical renewal, the question of argumentation has witnessed renewed interest in recent years, not only in studies on discourse analysis, but also in sociological approaches and work on public policy. [48] Refusing the simplistic opposition between the logical and the illogical, Perelman distinguishes between, on the one hand, proof – a concept limited to mathematics, and whose statements follow a logical and unique reasoning that is self-sufficient – and, on the other hand, argumentation, which applies to all other domains of social life and whose reasoning is at best pseudo-logical. Here, argumentative activity plays a central role in making a given statement seem “probable”. Perelman thus insists that argumentation only takes shape in the context of interaction between a speaker and an audience, whose position the speaker seeks to alter. He thus attempts to differentiate conviction from persuasion, not in accordance with the nature of the arguments employed, but rather through the type of audience that the speaker addresses. In the case of conviction, this involves a large and mute audience, while in the case of persuasion, this involves a limited audience capable of discussion.

30Research employing discourse analysis has often limited its observation of argumentation to the large public speeches of conviction that Vivien Schmidt [49] refers to as communication discourse. The speech given by the mayor of Paris cited in the introduction is a typical example of communication discourse. The aim is to convince one’s audience – in this case, Parisians – of the benefits of a given project. Such discourses of conviction have very particular rules of composition. And, as demonstrated by Austin, actors know – or learn at their own risk – that these discourses have their own effects. When delivered by politicians, discourses of conviction are not judged purely on the basis of their descriptive validity, but above all for how they reveal the speaker’s intentions. If a researcher publicly declares, “the state cannot do everything”, it is a safe to assume that this will not provoke much reaction. However, if a prime minister were to make the same statement, s/he would be taken to task for exhibiting a lack of political will. Communication discourse is thus governed by rules that are essential for understanding its particular logic.

31Research stemming from the “argumentative” turn helped to widen the analytical scope by demonstrating that public policy analysis – which is to say, the dissection of a public policy, its objectives, means and outcomes – was simply an argumentative process, whose aim was to convince a given audience of the validity of a policy already in place, of a change to be made, or of a proposal to be implemented. Furthermore, such policy analysis does not only attempt to convince a broad audience, but also to persuade specific interlocutors in the more intimate exchanges that take place at every step of the policy process.

32It was indisputably Giandomenico Majone who first introduced this line of thought, when he showed that policy analysis constitutes an argument whose purpose is to persuade. [50] In an occasionally confusing manner (as is often the case with argumentative approaches), Majone interwove two steps : on the one hand, a comprehensive approach in which analytical activity is understood as a process closer to subjective argumentation than to objective proof ; and on the other, a normative approach advocating for argumentative analysis. He thereby emphasised the manner in which certain actors use analysis in order to persuade others to adopt a specific policy instrument. Majone thus reminds us that policy instruments, as well as their value, objectives, and ensuing consequences can all be interpreted in different ways, consequently paving the way for an interpretive struggle. Thus, for Majone, an instrument’s performance depends less on its properties than on the political and administrative context in which it operates. [51]

33By no longer situating argumentation solely within the scope of conviction but rather within the more discreet work of persuasion, we open up new forms of inquiry, both to grasp the strategies deployed by actors, but also to understand the conditions of their successes and failures. While studying how the president of the United States formulated foreign policy during the 1960s, Richard Neustadt [52] illustrated that far from relying on his authoritative position or his power of decree, the president spent most of his time attempting to persuade senators to adopt a given project. On the subject of urban policy, Robert Dahl [53] likewise emphasised the manner in which advocates of an idea would expend considerable energy to persuade other “sub-leaders” to adopt their project, by demonstrating to the latter that the project furthered their own interests. This often made for strange bedfellows in coalitions.

34We shall now turn to a more in-depth analysis of persuasive work, in order to better understand its role in the process of proposal formulation. We argue that persuasive work is based on two major challenges : the solidity of a convincing statement that can be delivered in public ; and appropriation, or the extent to which the audience sees its own identity strengthened or confirmed when adopting the policy statement.

Persuasion as a means for promoting the two routes

35In order to determine the significance and role of persuasive work, let us return to the tramway project, and more specifically to the crucial moments when new actors appeared, adopting positions in favour of one or the other of the two proposed routes. The appearance of these actors and the positions they adopted were not the result of a spontaneous movement or of a synchronised phenomenon, which would imply that all the actors in a network agreed to adopt the same position overnight. On the contrary, these actors appeared gradually, advancing in fits and starts, as they hesitated about which position to adopt and had their positions altered through persuasion. It is these interactions that interest us the most : both the argumentative work of actors, who positioned themselves as advocates for one route or the other, and the reactions of those who hesitated between options. Under what conditions – but also at what price – did actors agree to support the tram project ? In order to understand this issue, we shall revisit three crucial moments in the process.

36The first concerns the position taken by the mayor of Paris in July 1995 during a press conference on pollution, and helps us pinpoint the importance and nature of argumentative work in a discrete competitive situation which makes appropriation possible.

37In order to understand how this position was adopted, we need to examine the discussions that unfolded around Jean Tiberi when he had not yet come to a decision, other than that he needed to announce a number of measures to be taken in response to the appearance of the pollution problem on the political agenda. [54] These discussions took place internally, in the presence of the members of the mayoral cabinet, highly placed administrative staff and certain elected officials. Argumentative work appears all the more important here given that, in this context, we are dealing with a competitive space in which each actor sought to prioritise his or her measure.

38In the case of the tram project, it so happened that three actors made the same suggestion – one which had previously been absent from the political landscape [55] – to the mayor. Over the course of these discussions, these actors not only argued for the tram’s potential as a “good” solution to the pollution problem, but also emphasised the benefits the mayor could derive from endorsing such a “modern” and “innovative” form of transport. In other words, these arguments emphasised the credibility of the tram statement just as much as the identity issues implied by its appropriation.

39This qualification process is all the more interesting because it refers to a major characteristic of the discursive process – the inseparable link between a policy statement and its enunciator – and from there, to a resulting specificity : the close relationship between a proposal’s qualities and those of its spokesperson. When the three actors submitted the tram project for discussion, in so doing they established a connection between the modernity of this mode of transport and their own “progressive” identities. [56]

40Consequently, persuading the mayor no longer involved simply telling him that the tram project was a convincing solution to the pollution problem, i.e., because it would provide the mayor with a policy statement that could survive the challenges of media attention. It also involved convincing the mayor that adopting the policy statement would confer to him the very qualities of the object being defended : he would become a “modern” mayor, distinct from his predecessor. From this perspective, it becomes apparent that the transfer of identity between a proposition and its advocate is particularly important in the context of policymaking, given that it remains very difficult for an actor to legitimately describe him- or herself as “innovative” or “progressive” in the public arena.

41Thus, while it was not easy for Jean Tiberi to directly distance himself from his predecessor [Jacques Chirac], to whom he owed his position as mayor, he could distinguish himself by virtue of his ability to propose innovative solutions that signalled an important change : at least, this was the argument that his councillors used in order to convince him of the project’s merits. Following these discussions, the mayor went on to adopt the tram as a possible solution. And yet, far from being a mere parrot, Tiberi refused to make the tram the main solution, as his councillors had recommended.

42The second essential moment occurred two months later in September 1995, as Jean Tiberi launched studies of the tram along Paris’s “southern ring road”. [57] This implied, of course, that there were no longer one, but two routes in competition. Tiberi’s calls for new studies illustrated that the redefinition of the project’s perimeter was the result of argumentative work whose purpose was to place two different routes in competition. In fact, while only one route had been envisioned in July at the moment of the press conference on pollution, a second route emerged after an informal meeting between the mayor and the president of the RATP, Jean-Claude Bailly. [58] It was during this encounter that Bailly persuaded the mayor to consider a second route. The shift in positions over time allows us to better understand the argumentative process and its effects.

43While it was unfortunately not possible to find a record of what these two actors said to one another, I have been able to reconstruct one discussion that took place in preparation for this lunch meeting. It occurred three days prior to the meeting, and involved the president of the RATP and his close advisors. This encounter is particularly interesting because it enables us not only to understand how arguments are produced – constructed and selected to fit the interlocutor who is to be persuaded – but also to observe the specific effects of these arguments, which are at the source of the RATP president’s stance on the issue.

44Gathering his main advisors, Jean-Claude Bailly organised a meeting in preparation for his lunch with the mayor, in order to decide upon his position [59] – still not fixed at this point – and determine the strategic arguments that would be best suited to persuade Tiberi to support the tram project.

45During this meeting, two groups challenged each other’s statements. The first group comprised the “bus” specialists, plus a new generation of transport experts [60] who were more attentive to the interaction between transport and urbanism. The second group represented the “metro” specialists, [61] commonly seen as all-powerful within the RATP. This group had already worked on the preceding tram projects, and thus defended the idea of a route following the Little Belt Railway. The bus specialists, however, made the case that the tram should follow another route, along the boulevards Maréchaux, thus replacing the overburdened Little Belt bus line.

46While both groups insisted that their tramline would best combat pollution and thus respond to the mayor’s concerns, the defenders of the Maréchaux route clearly managed to convince the president of the RATP. Upon leaving the meeting, he adopted a position in favour of the second route and suggested persuading the mayor to conduct studies into this possibility, designating the southern ring road as the project’s perimeter.

47The process of persuasion, or more exactly its success, is a complex phenomenon to analyse. In fact, it is always very difficult to link an intention – that of the person attempting to persuade – with an effect – the adoption of a position, in this case by the RATP’s president, as many other factors can enter into the equation. It is, for example, difficult to distinguish the respective importance of arguments and positions from the persons who present them. In this case, however, given that the bus specialists could throw less “weight” around, compared to the metro specialists, we can assume that it was the arguments they deployed that played an essential role. According to those present, it was the argument that the tram along the boulevards Maréchaux would be more visible, more urban, more modern and would be less likely to resemble a “disguised metro” which elicited the most positive response from the RATP president. [62]

48As the previous projects had previously been locked into the Little Belt Railway route, changing the problem and subsequently altering its meaning provided an opportunity for the actors involved. And yet, only the argumentative work that they carried out enabled them to open up new possibilities and propose the tramline along the boulevards Maréchaux as a serious solution to the pollution problem.

49The third “moment” that interests us here was in reality a period of three years, during which the advocates of one or the other route attempted to persuade the mayor, who had since positioned himself as the arbiter of the tram’s route. This period is interesting because it allows us to observe the stabilisation processes of two stated solutions, each of which had its own meaning, route and justifications for being the “best” choice. Furthermore, we can also use this moment to study the dissemination process of these two arguments, which engendered the creation of two distinct coalitions.

50As pollution gradually moved to the edges of the political agenda and experts were called upon to give their opinion, the debate took on a slower rhythm. During this more nuanced period, an increasing number of actors entered the debate and took a position in favour of one of the two routes. Promotion was equally strong for the both the Maréchaux and the Little Belt Railway proposals, with the result that each produced a coalition structured around a route-specific discourse.

51In studies on networks or coalitions, the actors who compose them are often assumed to have pre-established connections with one another, thus explaining their capacity for collective action. In this case, it remains difficult to establish any specific commonality other than adhesion to one of the routes, so scattered throughout various institutions were their respective proponents. Whether we look at the RATP, the STP, Paris City Hall, the APUR, or even the FNAUT, [63] at every level we find defenders of the Little Belt Railway project and advocates for the boulevards Maréchaux route. We can thus observe the formation of two coalitions whose discourse, as it grew progressively richer and more institutionalised, became the crucial binding agent.

52For each route, the policy statement and its accompanying arguments stabilised such that each option could present itself as the best answer to the problems which needed to be solved.

53The first route, the Little Belt Railway, became the best project for solving transport problems in the south of the capital and reducing traffic by proposing a rapid form of urban transit. Experts from the RATP, the STP, City Hall and the APUR were its most forceful advocates. As these experts were specialised in transport engineering, they were called upon to participate in a joint commission to draft a comparative report on the two routes. In this commission, presided over by a member of the STP who was favourable to the Little Belt route, these experts mobilised their knowledge and technical know-how to demonstrate that, with respect to the classical indicators of transport, the Little Belt route appeared clearly more “efficient” [performant]. Twice as fast and therefore doubly attractive, the tram would allow for the transport of a greater number of people, and would thus better satisfy the public. The coalition also included important Parisian politicians, such as the mayor of the 13th arrondissement, Jacques Toubon ; deputy mayor Jean-François Legaret, in charge of public financial procurement at City Hall and considered to be “close to the mayor” ; elected officials from opposition parties, including the Socialist Party, the Green Party and the Communist Party ; important directors from the municipal administration ; and highly engaged civil society leaders, including some from the FNAUT.

54The second route along the boulevards Maréchaux became the “best” proposal for developing a new, more modern, vision of the city. It promised to replace cars and provide a form of transportation that could rehabilitate an entire neighbourhood. The actors supporting this route were equally numerous. Among them were the president of the RATP, along with some important members of his team, the vice-president of the STP, Georges Dobias, members from the APUR and officials from City Hall. These experts emphasised the route’s spatial importance, which physically took the place of the car. They also highlighted the issue of its integration into the urban space, making the tram an inherent element of the city. This coalition had the support of the mayor of the 15th arrondissement, Gally de Jean, several elected officials from the RPR, the Socialist Party, the Green Party, and a number of community associations, including certain FNAUT managers.

55Caught in the middle of these two coalitions were the undecided, starting with the mayor of Paris himself, who refrained from taking a stand on the issue between 1995 and 1998, and who therefore became the central focus of attempts at persuasion by both coalitions. He was not the only one to remain undecided, however : if we look at the official positions of spokespeople representing the Green Party, the Socialist Party and even the FNAUT, indecision reigned. The tactic of indecision was not solely an attempt to avoid internal strife within organisations due to differences in opinion ; indecision also provided the undecided actors with the means to position themselves at the centre of the strategies of persuasion.

Deciding on a route : power in action

56By enabling the consolidation of a convincing policy statement and its dissemination through appropriation, the persuasion process added two serious contenders to the repertoire of available solutions, both of which had the potential to transform transportation policy. In a way, this process acted like a filter that eliminated or transformed any candidate unable to survive an argumentative challenge, whether they sought to test the stated solution’s robustness or the quality of the identity it conferred.

57Nevertheless, this tells us very little about what happened when several proposals made their way into this repertoire. In reality, although the mayor had announced that he was would take a position as early as 1996, he patently prolonged his indecision until 1998 because both routes were highly convincing. The case of the tram project is all the more interesting given that the moment when the mayor made his decision public – during a major political crisis when his legitimacy was being seriously questioned – reveals the necessity of taking into account another aspect of discourse : namely, its role as an instrument of power and a tool to legitimate authority.

58When one takes argumentative work seriously, this complicates any attempt to analyse issues of dominance, authority and the balance of power. As Hannah Arendt has highlighted, [64] these two approaches draw on radically different conceptions of the political and social space.

59In the majority of studies stemming from the argumentative turn, the question of power is principally vested in discourse. For example, David Howarth [65] uses the work of Foucault to explore the way in which discourse, through its capacity to impose “truths”, norms and knowledge, structures the thoughts and behaviour of actors. In the same manner, Deborah Stone [66] demonstrates that analysis is an argumentative process that aims to influence behaviour. Hence, discourse becomes the means utilised by a social group to occupy a dominant position. In a critical perspective, researchers condemn discourse’s power of influence, which all too often helps to legitimise an elite, but can also become the means – from a Habermasian perspective that goes beyond strategic action to make use of communicative action – for attaining harmony as tempered through discussion.

60Authors such as Pierre Bourdieu see this approach based on the power of language as a weapon used by those who already have power. Specifically, Bourdieu criticises Austin and Habermas for neglecting the effects of social position, basing his critique on what he identifies as one of the main omissions in these authors’ theories : the study of the moments that precede discussion and in fact make it possible. [67] According to Bourdieu, it is necessary to focus on the person speaking and who has been granted the power to speak – he refers here to the skeptron used by the Greeks to designate the person who had the right to speak – and not confer exclusive importance to whatever that person might say. Bourdieu thus argues that the effect of social position precedes any speech act ; by focusing solely on speech acts, these authors are in fact only observing a truncated version of reality. Only once positional effects have been taken into account can language become a weapon in service of that position. The importance that the author of La Distinction grants to the positions of actors does not, however, diminish the role of language in his analysis. Language is indeed conceived of as a weapon, but it is a weapon employed by individuals in order to maintain the positions of power that they already occupy. Bourdieu thus argues that the performativity of language can only be understood as a function of the power of the person speaking, of the legitimacy of the situation in which s/he speaks, and of the legitimacy conferred to the speaker by those listening to the discourse. Critiquing Austin, Bourdieu explains that the weakening of religious discourse was less influenced by the evolution of discourse forms than by the declining legitimacy of the religious institution that produced it. [68]

61Nevertheless, while it differs substantially from the approach taken by proponents of the argumentative turn, Pierre Bourdieu’s approach shares a key feature with the former. Namely, both approaches distinguish between the space of social positions and the space of adopted positions in order to better subjugate one to the other. In one approach, the positions are asymmetrical : the elite is already established and uses language as a weapon. In the other, positions are considered to be symmetrical and language is what creates the elite.

62In order to transcend this radical opposition, I propose considering that social positions and adopted positions are as inseparable as policy statements and their enunciators. In other words, social position is gained through the adoption of positions just as the positions adopted are informed by actors’ social positions. In our analysis, we shall forego the endless task of determining whether the argument or the person who pronounced it truly carried the most weight in how a position was ultimately adopted. Instead, we shall determine to what extent actors’ “weight” influences the formation of policy statements, and how these statements help to define the asymmetrical positions of actors.

63To this end, we must conceive of asymmetrical positions not as an objective and stable reality that is forced upon actors, but as a subjective and fluid construct that guides their action and moulds their discourse without fixing it. In other words, an actor who chooses to address him- or herself to a mayor in the hopes of changing the latter’s position must simultaneously reconcile the recognition of asymmetrical social positions with the power of arguments strong enough to alter the positions adopted by actors. An individual’s ability to influence the mayor’s position thus depends on the policy statement’s capacity not only for solving problems and conferring a relevant identity, but also for taking into account this asymmetry of positions.

The tram’s route twisted by the “weight” of various actors

64In order to understand the full significance of the inseparable link between social positions and the adoption of positions, let us return to two key events that occurred during deliberations concerning the tramway and which both illustrate the importance of the “weight” of actors in the decision-making process.

65The first event relates to the elaboration of a third route in 1997, the so-called “mixed route”. This new route, partly on the boulevards Maréchaux and partly on the Little Belt Railway, illustrates how certain actors tried to adapt the route to address not only the problems of pollution and identity, but also the political obstacles to be overcome. These actors, who were mainly technicians, [69] presented a route that attempted to reconcile the stance of the mayor of the 13th arrondissement, Jacques Toubon (who was also the former minister of culture, close to Jacques Chirac, and an advocate for the Little Belt route) with that of the mayor of the 15th arrondissement, Gally de Jean (who was close to Jean Tiberi, and an ardent supporter of the Maréchaux route). First and foremost, the mixed route was the outcome of a strategic analysis conducted by actors who believed that the mayor’s indecision stemmed from the strategic positioning of the two arrondissement mayors, who carried serious political “weight” and were not to be crossed. The new route in fact provided a technical means to strike a political compromise. But above all, with its new twisting shape, it also became the repository for the political clout of these actors.

66The mixed route sheds light on the inseparable link between social positions and adopted positions. As soon as the two arrondissement mayors adopted strong positions in favour of one of the two routes, they made the final choice a benchmark by which to measure their respective political weight. It is thus not merely an issue of examining how the asymmetry of positions forced a route choice, nor how, conversely, the choice of route structured the new asymmetrical space of social positions : rather, we must understand how, once a position was adopted, its route, its advocate and the latter’s political weight all became inseparable.

67From this point of view, the mixed route was the physical expression of these varying weights, and would help locate common ground and avoid a political impasse : at least, this was the opinion of its creators. It is less important to determine whether their analysis of the actors’ different weights was objectively appropriate than it is to understand that the subjective consideration of weight consequently impacted the new route and distorted it. In a sense, the mixed route was proof of the existence of the political weight being thrown around, which was the main cause of distortion, since no other explanation could justify such a tortuous route.

68A second event also deserves our attention, insofar as it helped to enrich and nuance the issue of political weight : namely, the moment when the mayor decided to support the Maréchaux route. Tiberi effectively took a stance in the middle of a major political crisis, during which his legitimacy and authority were being seriously challenged. Adopting a position in favour of the Maréchaux route was thus a means through which he was able to assert his authority by proving that he was not under the influence of politicians such as Jacques Toubon, whose political weight was in turn diminished. From this perspective, we can see that the choice of a route was not only a reflection of political weight, but it was also a means to alter this weight.

69In order to properly contextualise the mayor’s decision, we need to address the political crisis surrounding it. In the aftermath of 1998’s regional elections, [70] Jacques Toubon blamed Jean Tiberi for the defeat of Parisian right-wing parties, and created his own group composed of about 30 members (out of the 92-member municipal majority), exploiting a split between the RPR and the UDF. [71] He thus not only challenged the mayor’s image, tarnished by these affairs, but also highlighted the latter’s lack of a project and, by extension, his inability to govern. [72]

70The confrontation between these two men lasted over three months [73] and was particularly violent, [74] with Jean Tiberi refusing any kind of negotiation despite the significant mobilisation of groups from the RPR and even from the president’s office. [75] The conflict came to an end in July when Jacques Toubon finally relented, dissolving his group and falling into line. A headline in the newspaper Libération described the situation as “Toubon signs his surrender”. [76]

71Beyond the political event itself, what interests us here is the fact that the mayor’s position, adopted right in the middle of this political crisis, was primarily an act designed to show that he was indeed the mayor, which is to say, the one with the authority to govern. It was in the dynamic of the action that his legitimacy and political weight were constructed, and not in a static snapshot of the various actors’ positions.

72Jacques Toubon saw Tiberi’s indecision as proof of his inability to govern. By adopting a position right in the middle of a rowdy city council meeting, the mayor was therefore able to affirm that he indeed possessed the necessary authority to be a leader. In other words, it was not because Tiberi was the mayor that he took a decision – if that were the case, why would he not simply have made a choice earlier ? – but he made a decision in order to assert his power as mayor and demonstrate that Toubon did not possess the political clout attributed to him. Here, political weight played out in this show of strength.

73Throughout this period, numerous internal discussions took place between Jean Tiberi and those in his inner circle. Discussions centred on the nature of Jacques Toubon’s political clout, and whether negotiating with him was necessary or not. His political weight was debated, but nothing allowed it to be accurately measured. From this perspective, Tiberi’s strategy was clear. He believed that Toubon did not have enough political clout to knock him down, and therefore refused to negotiate with him. Tiberi thus explicitly rejected the mixed route, which was not simply the consequence of this weight but its very basis. [77]

74Based primarily on the mayor’s lack of progress in policy dossiers, the political crisis set off by Jacques Toubon concerning the mayor’s legitimacy in fact paradoxically strengthened Jean Tiberi’s hold on power. It also pushed Tiberi to adopt a position in order to move dossiers like the tram project forward. In a sense, the problems raised by Toubon and reported to the mayor by his internal team brought forth solutions both in terms of dossiers and new organisation. [78] In the wake of the crisis, the mayor publicly and definitively adopted a position in favour of the Maréchaux route.

75These two episodes thus confirm the necessity of seriously considering the role of political weight. However, we must do so on the condition that this weight, far from being the objective value of positions, is permanently defined and redefined throughout the policymaking process. Policy statements are therefore not the site where problems and solutions alone are defined, but also represent a veritable topography of positions and legitimacies.

76* * *

77When we closely examine the policy statement made by the mayor of Paris on the subject of the tram project at the time of its inauguration, it is clear that, far from being an ephemeral justificatory discourse pronounced after the fact, without any influence on the decision, this policy statement was in fact the result of a complex and meandering discursive process which greatly contributed to the decision ultimately made. Producing a solid, convincing and shared policy statement is an endeavour constructed over time, both by anticipating the efforts at justification which will be necessary after the fact, but also by giving meaning to action in order to better promote it.

78The process of making policy statements can be grasped by observing the discursive practices of actors, which are simultaneously definitional, argumentative and analytic, and through which actors test out the different proposals they wish to see implemented. A policy statement thus begins to take shape as its ability to withstand challenges is confirmed : its hardiness is tested through critiques of its ability to solve problems and to account for the identity and weight of those who produced it. The success of the Maréchaux tram route was due not only to its ability to constitute a strong policy statement, which was gradually transformed into a convincing solution to the pollution problem. Its success was also due to the statement’s ability to transform those who defended it into “progressives”, and to confer legitimacy upon its main advocate, Jean Tiberi.

79Studies on social problems have already demonstrated the importance of discursive practices that make it possible, during the agenda-setting phase, to transform a situation into an unacceptable problem, to identify its cause and to designate a responsible party : a process that William Felstiner, Richard Abel and Austin Serat [79] summarised with the tripartite epithet of “Naming, Blaming, Claiming”. Likewise, close observation of the solution’s formulation phase illustrates the importance of discursive practices when developing a repertoire of “credible” solutions. But this time, it is less a case of rendering a situation unacceptable but, on the contrary, of making solutions that are capable of resolving problems seem convincing ; proposals that are capable of garnering widespread support seem persuasive ; and decisions capable of establishing a hierarchy of positions seem legitimate. We could summarise this same process with a similar moniker, such as “Solving, Persuading, Empowering”.

80Rather than endlessly wondering whether a public policy statement proposes solutions that really solve problems, actions that really change public policy, and changes that governments truly endorse – in other words, whether discourse is descriptively valid – we should firstly determine the role and the effects of any policy statement. Policy statements are part and parcel of the necessary political game of restoring order after the disorder left by social problems and those who must deal with them. [80] As Georges Burdeau has explained, [81] it is likely that politics is to the functioning of order what love is to reproduction : a necessary charm that answers to a social imperative.


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    “Mayors all over the world, all of us, we must take action against pollution to protect both our health and our civilisation. We must change our modes of transportation. What’s more, with the tram we can make our city even more attractive.” Extract from Bertrand Delanoë’s inaugural speech, cited in Le Parisien, 17 December 2006.
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    Daniel Céfaï speaks of the “galaxy of constructivism” in which these theories can be situated (D. Céfaï, Pourquoi se mobilise-t-on ?).
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    RATP – Régie autonome des transports parisiens [Autonomous Operator of Parisian Transport] ; APUR - Agence parisienne d’urbanisme [Parisian Urbanism Agency] ; STIF – Syndicat des transports d’Île-de-France [Île-de-France Transport Union] ; DRE – Direction régionale de l’équipement [Regional Facilities Directorate].
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    P. Muller, “L’analyse cognitive des politiques publiques. Vers une sociologie politique de l’action publique”, Revue française de science politique, 50(2), 2000, 189-207 ; and “Les politiques publiques comme construction d’un rapport au monde”, in A. Faure, G. Pollet, P. Warin (eds), La construction du sens dans les politiques publiques (Paris : L’Harmattan, 1995), 13-23 ; B. Jobert, P. Muller, L’État en action, politiques publiques et corporatismes (Paris : PUF, 1987).
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    “The cognitive approach […] tends to formulate the question of policy-making in a different manner : as soon as the purpose of policy-making is no longer simply to ‘solve problems’, but to construct frameworks for interpreting the world, it is then possible to pose in fresh terms the question of the relationship between policies and the construction of a social order” (P. Muller, “L’analyse cognitive des politiques publiques”, 189).
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    See above, in the introduction to this special issue, 33-41.
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    “As politicians know only too well but social scientists too often forget, public policy is made of language”. G. Majone, Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1989), 1.
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    C. Musselin, “Sociologie de l’action organisée et analyse des politiques publiques. Deux approches pour un même objet ?”, Revue française de science politique, 55(1), 2005, 51-70.
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    M. D. Cohen, J. G. March, J. P. Olsen, “A garbage can model of organizational choice”, Administrative Science Quarterly, 17(1), 1972, 1-25.
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    Eschewing any approach in which language is removed from its social usage in order to make it the reflection of some pure inner thought, Wittgenstein considers meaning as a “language game”, which is to say, a “totality formed by language and the activities with which it is interwoven”. The game reconciles the existence of rules and social conventions that enable exchange, the contingency of each component that plays out between actors, and the multiplicity of possible discursive practices. Thus, Wittgenstein sees a diverse range of activities as language games, such as : “giving orders and obeying ; posing questions and responding to them ; describing an event ; inventing a story ; telling a joke ; describing an immediate experience ; conjecturing about events in the physical world ; and creating hypotheses and scientific theories” (L. Wittgenstein, Recherches, 39).
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    STP – Syndicat des transports parisiens [Parisian Transport Union] ; SNCF – Société nationale des chemins de fer français [French National Railway Company].
  • [36]
    The Little Belt Railway was a 23km line of train tracks constructed between 1852 and 1867. In that era it encircled Paris and linked its eight train stations, which each belonged to a different private company. In 1900, the year of the Exposition Universelle, close to 40 million travellers used the Little Belt Railway. By 1934, however, this figure had dropped to no more than six million. A victim of the metro, the Little Belt Railway was essentially replaced that same year by a bus, which ran along another circular route parallel to the railway : the boulevards Maréchaux. The last segment of the railway was closed to travellers in 1988 in order to enable the regional train (the RER C) to use the route over a three-kilometre stretch, and for use by freight trains in 1993.
  • [37]
    “At the time, the key question, in my mind, was ‘how to reuse this existing infrastructure ?’ This had always been the obvious question that had persisted… bearing in mind that things weren’t quite so simple, it was because there was a corridor with the rails already in place that it was still simple enough to decide on something. […] I believe that many people at the time thought that it was an outstanding opportunity.” (Interview with a RATP manager, 13 April 2008.)
  • [38]
    Translator’s note : Paris is encircled by a ring-road highway, le périphérique, which also demarcates its administrative boundary. From the outer suburbs, one is only able to enter the city of Paris through its “gateways”, or portes, that cross under this ring road at several points located along the périphérique.
  • [39]
    “Let’s discuss the Little Belt then. I’ll skip over the earlier studies ; there were shelves upon shelves full of them. Particularly the studies carried out for the STP […] They were often written by the RATP. Not only though, they were done by APUR, too. All of the studies were interesting. Very rich in detail. They showed the benefits of reactivating the Railway, from the point of view of transport, inter-urban mobility, and efficiency” (Interview with an APUR manager, 5 May 2008).
  • [40]
    STP Board of Directors meeting, 11 May 1993.
  • [41]
    “At the time, the STIF had asked us to add a little complementary circuit to the Railway, which would extend past the Porte de Versailles, simply by way of exploring possibilities, and not in any way reflective of a decision. This was another extra stage, starting in ‘89. There was this period of transition. We re-did a summary study. They only asked us to explore the possibility. As in, here’s how many people would use it, how much it would cost, more or less.” (Interview with a manager from the RATP, cited above.)
  • [42]
    Translator’s note : Representative of the central state at the regional and departmental level. Paris is the only municipality in France to have a préfet on its city council.
  • [43]
    “L’usage de la voiture est déconseillé à Paris”, Le Monde, 14 July 1995.
  • [44]
    “In the long term, the mayor of Paris wishes to propose ‘diversified transport solutions for Parisians and those living in the metropolitan area’. Having discarded ‘inappropriate solutions’, such as urban tolls, alternate traffic days or driving bans in the city centre, Mayor Tiberi indicated the main outlines of the ‘ambitious political partnership’ that he plans to carry out in collaboration with the RATP and the SNCF : the publication of a study ‘as soon as possible’ concerning a tram project that would service the southern ring road” (Françoise Chirot, “Jean Tiberi n’exclut pas des mesures coercitives pour limiter la pollution”, Le Monde, 23 July 1995).
  • [45]
    “One thing is clear : the levels of atmospheric pollution that we have just witnessed pose the more widespread problem of the evolution of automobile traffic in urban agglomerations. For, indisputably, while industrial pollution has been effectively combatted over the past years, atmospheric pollution has continued to grow, largely due to automobile transport.” (Transcript of debates in the Paris City Council, session on 24 July 1995. 10 – 1995 – D1082).
  • [46]
    This is the advantage of the concept of “statement” [énoncé] over that of “discourse” : it allows us to reference both the content and the social activity of making statements.
  • [47]
    C. Perelman, L. Olbrechts-Tyteca, La nouvelle rhétorique ; M. Meyer, Perelman : le renouveau de la rhétorique (Paris : PUF, 2004).
  • [48]
    F. Chateauraynaud, Argumenter dans un champ de force. Essai de balistique sociologique (Paris : Éditions Pétra, 2011).
  • [49]
    V. A. Schmidt, C. M. Radaelli, “Policy change and discourse in Europe. Conceptual and methodological issues”, West European Politics, 27(2), 2004, 183-210.
  • [50]
    “Whether in written or oral form, argument is central at all stages of the policy process. […] Political parties, the electorate, the legislature, the executive, the courts, the media, interest groups, and independent experts all engage in a continuous process of debate and reciprocal persuasion. […] The policy analyst is a producer of policy arguments more similar to a lawyer – a specialist in legal arguments – than to an engineer or a scientist. His basic skills are not algorithmical but argumentative” (G. Majone, Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process, 1, 21).
  • [51]
    “Many authors write as if it were possible to base the choice of policy instruments exclusively on their technical properties. Unfortunately, this cannot be done. To begin with, policy instruments are seldom ideologically neutral. […] Instruments cannot be neatly separated from goals. […] The performance of instruments depends less on their formal properties than on the political and administrative context in which they operate.” (G. Majone, Evidence, Argument, and Persuasion in the Policy Process, 117-8).
  • [52]
    R. E. Neustadt, Presidential Power. The Politics of Leadership (New York : John Wiley & Sons, 1960).
  • [53]
    R. Dahl, Who Governs ? (New Haven : Yale University Press, 1965) ; and “The concept of power”, Behavioral Science, 2(3), 1957, 201-15.
  • [54]
    “We were looking for a list of measures” (Interview with an administrative official at City Hall [Ville de Paris], 25 September 2008).
  • [55]
    “At the political level, the project wasn’t ripe yet. It wasn’t really in people’s heads. It was a bit of a trend at the time. Honestly, in 1995, doing a tram in Paris was as crazy as doing bicycles.” (Interview with a member of Jean Tiberi’s cabinet, 10 October 2008).
  • [56]
    “That was the slightly progressive current around Tiberi where there were guys like Vaquin, I found myself there too, pushed toward new ideas and moving away from the previous mandate. In all sorts of areas : we did fewer office buildings than Chirac, we did more bikes than Chirac. We were in the midst of a renewal. Chirac had built the city like a minister would. Tiberi, he was something else. We became a local collective authority. With new ideas. We said to ourselves : why not a tram, that’s new.” (Interview with a member of Jean Tiberi’s cabinet, ibid, 10 October 2008.)
  • [57]
    “One thing is sure : it’s going to be a tram. Regarding its exact implementation, I’ll make my decision in the first months of 1996, when I will have all the necessary technical and legal information at hand.” (Libération, 1995).
  • [58]
    “Very quickly, once they started speaking about it in the media, it was the SNCF project that had the upper hand. Not the RATP. So all of a sudden, it was then that Bailly went to see Jean Tiberi and said to him : there’s an alternative project along the boulevards Maréchaux” (Interview with a member of Jean Tiberi’s staff, cited above).
  • [59]
    “It was just before that meeting [with Tiberi] when Jean-Paul got us all together, but only a small group. He was saying : what card should we play ? Not as a company but for the Parisian community. What are the forces at play ? The pros and the cons. How should we position ourselves ? […] The director of the RATP was a very, very important actor […].” (Interview with a manager at the RATP, cited above).
  • [60]
    “PZ : Was it those who thought the tram could be urban ? Absolutely. Look where I situate them. It was those people who went on to convince the RATP president, without any trouble. […] I remember that meeting in his office where, really, we were at the end of our arguments and even he left there convinced. […] No trouble convincing Jean-Paul Bailly during a meeting that has stayed in our minds.” (Interview with a manager at the RATP, 25 April 2008).
  • [61]
    “PZ : Because there are both bus and metro experts ? Of course. There are the metro experts, the bus experts, and some general experts. General experts are the ones who say : there is no such thing as a mode of transport in and of itself. A mode of transport is an urban system, conceived in interaction with its urban environment. In this respect, the metro is not an urban system, it’s a transport system. Doesn’t matter if it goes under the boulévards or a bit further, what matters is where it surfaces in the city.” (Interview with a manager at the RATP, 13 April 2008).
  • [62]
    “And that’s him. The arguments, the civilised route, the wild route, and we’re not going to do the 14th metro line, he’s the one who formalised it all like that.” (Interview with a manager at the RATP, 25 April 2008.)
  • [63]
    FNAUT – Fédération nationale des associations d’usagers des transports (National Federation of Transport User Associations).
  • [64]
    “Authority […] is incompatible with persuasion, which presupposes equality and works through a process of argumentation. Where arguments are used authority is in abeyance […]. Against the egalitarian order of persuasion stands the authoritarian order, which is always hierarchical.” Hannah Arendt, “What is authority ?” in Carl J. Friedrich (ed.), Authority (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1958), 82
  • [65]
    D. R. Howarth, A. J. Norval, Y. Stavrakakis, Discourse Theory and Political Analysis. Identities, Hegemonies, and Social Change (Manchester : Manchester University Press, 2000) ; J. Glynos, D. R. Howarth, Logics of Critical Explanation in Social and Political Theory (Abingdon : Routledge, 2007).
  • [66]
    D. A. Stone, Policy Paradox. The Art of Political Decision Making (New York : W. W. Norton & Company, 2002) ; and “Causal stories and the formation of policy agendas”, Political Science Quarterly, 104(2), 1989, 281-300.
  • [67]
    “Such is the principle of error, whose most accomplished expression is given by Austin (or by Habermas after him), when he believes to have discovered in discourse itself, which is to say in the purely linguistic substance of speech, the principle of speech’s effectiveness. Trying to understand the power of linguistic manifestations linguistically, seeking in language the principle of the logic and the efficacy of institutional language, these are tantamount to forgetting that authority comes to language from the outside. Homer’s skeptron reminds us of this concretely : it is extended to the orator who is about to take the floor. At best, language represents this authority, manifests it, symbolises it.” (P. Bourdieu, Langage et pouvoir symbolique, 161).
  • [68]
    “The symbolic efficacy of words can only ever be exercised to the extent that the one who receives it recognises the one who delivers it as legitimate to do so.” (P. Bourdieu, Langage et pouvoir symbolique, 173).
  • [69]
    “We proposed a third solution to Tiberi. And I went for it myself. Why ? I thought that it was technically a feasible solution, and it seemed to satisfy people […]. PZ : Where did the mixed solution come from ? It came from the imagination of Lambolay, who one fine morning came to see me and told me about it… He sensed that the project wasn’t making any progress, that it was dragging on. The resolution came out terribly late, even though the decision had been made so much earlier. In people’s minds. We couldn’t manage to get our pet project out, we kept telling ourselves that we might not get a majority. And Lambolay came to see me. He must have spoken with Toubon. Toubon liked Lambolay, by the way, and tried to make it so the tram would be on the Little Belt. Lambolay came to see me with the project.” (Meeting with an administrative director at Paris City Hall.)
  • [70]
    “‘We’re trying to learn some lessons from two and a half failures, because the last municipal elections weren’t great for the UDF-RPR majority in Paris’, explained one of the dissidents, Claude Goasguen, Secretary-General of the UDF, on France Inter”, Reuters, 7 April 1998.
  • [71]
    Translator’s note : RPR – Rassemblement pour la République (Rally for the Republic) ; UDF – Union pour la démocratie française (Union for French Democracy).
  • [72]
    “We want to reinvigorate the municipal majority, create the conditions for its victory during the next [municipal] elections in 2001, use our presence and our actions to encourage a democratic and transparent government in City Hall”, quote from Jacques Toubon, Reuters, 6 April 1998.
  • [73]
    “Chirac’s councillors say that Tiberi starts every meeting by saying ‘We’re not going to decide today’. That’s not true. The putsch proved that he knew how to decide pretty quickly. I use the word putsch because we used the term, on purpose, the idea being to break the system, which actually did work quite well, incidentally.” (Interview with a member of Jean Tiberi’s cabinet.)
  • [74]
    “Institutional chaos at City Hall, Jean Tiberi is close to a political knockout. The total warfare which kicked off last Monday within the RPR itself, between the mayor and Jacques Toubon, continues to wreak havoc” (Libération, 9 April 1998).
  • [75]
    “Le conflit Toubon Tiberi dans l’impasse”, Le Monde, 25 May 1998.
  • [76]
    Libération, 28 July 1998.
  • [77]
    “We arrived at Jean Tiberi’s office, the answer was niet, and after hardly half an hour too. It was almost as if he was reproaching us for proposing a solution that would please Toubon. I don’t think that he said no because of Toubon, I think he said no because, in his mind, the problem was already solved. There were so many choices that weren’t made yet, technical choices, lateral or axial, that kind of stuff…” (Interview with an administrative official at the Paris City Hall, 25 October 2008).
  • [78]
    “The putsch was something terrible, which led to other resentments, which led to 2001. But at the same time, it is now clear that it helped out Tiberi… let him stand on his own two feet, you know ? This is what the media was saying, after the putsch. He had the courage to go for it, he took some hits. He wasn’t the little mayor that he had been described as. The putsch entailed reorganisation in the administration. This is the problem that Toubon posed, after all, and rightly so. And what can you say to that ? The answer is that some members withdrew from the delegation. But the mayor also had to respond. So his answer was : ‘I’m going to reform my administration’. Elected officials will have more of a voice. Projects are going to progress more rapidly.” (Interview with a cabinet member.)
  • [79]
    W. L. F. Felstiner, R. L. Abel, A. Sarat, “The emergence and transformation of disputes : naming, blaming, claiming”, Law & Society Review, 15(3-4), 1980, 631-54.
  • [80]
    P.Zittoun, La fabrique politique des politiques publiques (Paris : Presses de Sciences Po, 2013).
  • [81]
    G. Burdeau, La politique au pays des merveilles (Paris : PUF, 1979).

Using an empirical study of the implementation of a tramline in Paris, the article assesses the influence of discursive practices in decision-making. Furthermore, it highlights three dimensions of a discourse in ‘action’ which plays a key role : 1/ as a definitional and analytical practice to produce meaning and shape a ‘coherent’ statement ; 2/ as a practice of persuasion to propagate this statement and structure a discursive coalition ; 3/ as a conflicting power practice to redefine the topography of positions. The policy-making process, understood as the analysis of games of language, actors, and positions, must be considered as a major political activity during which a government tries to put order in society.

Philippe Zittoun
A research director in the field of political science, Philippe Zittoun is a researcher at LET-ENTPE (University of Lyon), an associate researcher at PACTE (University of Grenoble), and a professor at Sciences Po-Grenoble. He is vice-chair of the Public Policy Research Committee at the IPSA and a member of the editorial committees of several international academic journals (Critical Policy Studies, Journal of Comparative Public Policy, Policy and Society, and series editor of the “Studies in the Political Economy of Public Policy” book series at Palgrave Macmillan). He also organised the first Conférence internationale sur les politiques publiques (ICPP 2013, Grenoble – International Conference on Public Policies). His work focuses primarily on the processes of public policy transformation, with particular emphasis on the production, use and politicisation of public policy discourse. In 2013 he published La fabrique politique des politiques publiques/The Political Process of Policymaking with the Presses de Sciences Po and Palgrave Macmillan (LET-ENTPE, 2 rue Maurice Audin, 69120 Vaulx-en-Velin).
Translated from French by
Jasper Cooper
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Uploaded on on 05/05/2014
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