CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1The day after his election as president on 6 May 2007, Nicolas Sarkozy confirmed his intention to grant universities more autonomy, something that had been part of his election manifesto. Following a short consultation period, the Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités (LRU) (Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities Act, also known as the Pécresse Act) was passed less than two months after the parliamentary elections. It granted all French universities the autonomy to manage their budgets and human resources, and enables them to own real estate. It also altered the governance of universities, strengthening the powers of their presidents, who would henceforth be elected by the administrative board for a term that can be renewed once.  [1]

2The purpose of this article is to understand why the executive branch kept its electoral promise. This question goes to the heart of the legitimacy of representative democracies, which are founded on competition between different policy proposals during elections. Several influential theories of democracy, including the “mandate” theory,  [2] see the realization of promises to voters as an essential principle. Citizens express this expectation in the public sphere, through mobilizations and opinion polls. The Cevipof barometer on political trust shows, for example, that in January 2017, 26% of those who declared that they had lost confidence in François Hollande pointed to “unfulfilled electoral promises”—by far the most frequent answer.  [3]

3Electoral manifestos therefore receive considerable attention, particularly in the media and online, where an increasing number of websites list the major proposals of parties and candidates. These actors understand the issue, and their manifestos consistently include a solemn commitment to “keep their word.”  [4] However, a majority of respondents in a French poll in March 2017 believed most promises by candidates in the upcoming presidential election were unachievable, and expected the winning candidate to be unable to deliver on their economic project.  [5] Research in other countries produces similar results.  [6] This pessimism goes beyond opinion polls to commentators and experts.  [7]

4But studies that have attempted to empirically analyze the implementation of electoral commitments offer a more nuanced picture. A significant proportion are actually fulfilled: in the dozen democracies studied so far, an average of 50% of promises are kept.  [8] A burgeoning research agenda has emerged around the parameters which explain why certain promises are kept and others are not, with Robert Thomson’s Comparative Pledge Group playing a central role. To date, however, these determinants have mostly been examined at a very large aggregate level, focusing on institutional variations between countries and governments, the number of veto points, and the number of parties making up the government majority.  [9] While these studies demonstrate the higher rate of fulfillment for the least costly promises and those which maintain the status quo, the literature has barely explored the individual characteristics of promises and the behavior of actors.

5This article follows the general approach of this special issue, trying to provide a more systematic explanation of electoral promise-keeping by approaching the issue through the prism of incentives (the reasons why elected representatives want to keep certain promises) and capacity (the resources they have to do so). It complements the literature in two respects. On the theoretical level, we combine conceptual approaches from electoral studies and public policy analysis.  [10] In the latter case, we specifically mobilize the theoretical model of John Kingdon’s Multiple Streams Framework (MSF)  [11] and the concept of “political capacity,”  [12] normally used to analyze change in public policy. There has been surprisingly little dialogue to date between this literature and research into electoral pledges, which developed from electoral competition analysis. Since the formulation and implementation of electoral promises overlap with many key issues in public policy research, like agenda setting, we believe such dialogue is necessary. It should enable a better explanation of the importance of an elected representative’s capacity to keep promises, beyond the institutional dimension that has been the focus of attention until now, and to reconstruct interactions involving not just political parties but stakeholders in the reform.

6On an empirical level, our approach is original because of its emphasis on the in-depth analysis of a single commitment, chosen for its heuristic potential, unlike statistical studies of large numbers of promises. The LRU Act offers an interesting case with regard to our dependent variable, since it constitutes a very clear instance of a promise that was kept—in the first hundred days of Sarkozy’s term, no less.  [13] The intense media coverage of this commitment and the absence of a large budgetary dimension were likely to favor its implementation, but it was not a typical case: unlike other high-priority projects, like minimum sentences for repeat offenders, the fiscal measures of the Loi en faveur du travail, de l’emploi et du pouvoir d’achat (TEPA) (Labor, Employment, and Purchasing Power Act), and the Loi relative à la maîtrise de l’immigration, à l’intégration et à l’asile (Immigration, Integration, and Asylum Act), higher education was not one of the central themes associated with Sarkozy or his party. We can treat the LRU Act as indicative of what may motivate elected representatives to keep a promise, beyond factors related to their ideology and sectoral reputation. It also tells us about their capacity to do so. The adoption of the law was not hampered by funding considerations, which have been examined elsewhere,  [14] but repeated attempts by previous governments to strengthen university autonomy had met with substantial opposition. We should ask why Sarkozy was able to keep his election promise to make these institutions more autonomous.

7Our case study uses around fifteen semi-structured interviews with political advisers involved in drafting the program, at the Élysée or in François Fillon’s prime ministerial cabinet, as well as representatives of all the organizations which mobilized for or against the reform. These interviews were conducted between October and December 2016. They were preceded by the study of a large corpus of press material, Sarkozy’s campaign speeches, and gray literature, including every report on university governance commissioned by the government and parliament since the 1990s, and several documents provided by members of the team in charge of drafting Sarkozy’s manifesto. This allowed us to identify the most relevant actors for our interviews and to target our questions and follow-up queries.

8The abundant coverage of issues about university reform meant that we could also use the large quantity of information available in the press to build our corpus of data. We established this in order to be as exhaustive as possible while reconstructing the formulation and implementation of the promise, and it enabled us to triangulate sources in order to correct for journalistic and editorial bias as far as possible. We analyzed every text on the topic published by a selection of the most widely read major national newspapers, representing different political inclinations (Aujourd’hui en France, Le Monde, Le Figaro, La Tribune, and L’Humanité). This corpus was supplemented with articles and opinion pieces from several regional newspapers with electronic archives: Ouest France, Sud Ouest, La Nouvelle République du Centre-Ouest, Le Télégramme, Le Midi libre, Paris-Normandie, La République du Centre, and La Charente libre. Using a keyword search, we targeted 1,088 articles published during the campaign (165 texts) and Sarkozy’s term (923 texts), which were systematically analyzed and compared in order to reconstruct each sequence in detail, the networks of actors involved, and the speeches delivered.

9This novel approach reveals an essential factor in the implementation of electoral promises: the mobilization of a political entrepreneur, in this case the Conférence des présidents d’université (CPU) (Conference of University Presidents), which was able to put the governance of universities on the agenda. But such mobilization only has an effect if it helps reinforce both the incentives and the capacity of the executive to do what it has promised. It is here that the combination of public policy approaches and electoral studies comes into its own. MSF helps us to conceptualize the role of political entrepreneurs in keeping election promises. These promises are more likely to be kept when an actor successfully provokes and organizes collective action, or promotes certain solutions to a given problem,  [15] building on a foundation of work that mobilizes Kingdon’s three “streams”—problems, solutions or policy, and politics—and enables the construction of a supporting coalition. By examining this work of developing and collectively promoting various solutions over a long period, we can investigate the temporality of electoral promises. As a result, our study suggests that a promise is more likely to be kept when it is based on successful work to prepare for a change in public policy. It is not necessarily the promise that leads to the reform: instead, it may be the very process of preparing for the reform, potentially carried out under different governments and majorities, as in the present case.

10We first show how the CPU helped to put university governance on the political agenda by identifying a problem and defining a solution (a policy) based on the principle of increased autonomy. We then explain why Sarkozy endorsed this solution, in a particular context of political competition that opened a window of opportunity. Finally, we highlight the role of the CPU in the capacity to implement the promised reform—more specifically, in the way the executive defused potential resistance by adopting the legislation very quickly. Political entrepreneurs can facilitate the implementation of manifestos by proposing operational options and contributing to the interweaving of political and administrative networks.

The creation of underlying incentives: The autonomy promoted by the CPU as a response to university “problems“

11Keeping a promise involves putting an issue on the electoral agenda, and then on the political agenda. Using the conceptual framework of MSF, we intend to demonstrate that the mobilization of a political entrepreneur promotes this dual process of agenda setting, by producing strong incentives to promise and implement a measure.

Putting the “problem” on the agenda

12The idea of a reform to give universities more autonomy emerged in France well before the 2007 campaign, based on negative assessments of how universities were functioning. Many actors, politicians, and academics were alarmed by their lack of resources, and by systems of governance and resource management that were often perceived as ineffective.  [16] Another major concern was the fact that the best graduates were passing over universities in favor of the elite grandes écoles, and that many students were leaving university without a degree or professional qualification.  [17] These problems were raised repeatedly by student organizations like UNEF, the Confédération étudiante (CE) (Student Confederation), or the Fédération des associations générales étudiantes (FAGE) (Federation of General Student Associations).  [18] They were also raised by higher education professionals, particularly through statements by their unions and the group “Sauvons la recherche” (Save Research), which was created in 2003, and by organizing the États généraux de la recherche (Estates General for Research) in Grenoble the following year.  [19]

13As we show, however, through the CPU,  [20] university presidents played a leading role in generating a perception of emergency and especially in promoting solutions involving greater university autonomy.  [21] This agenda-setting process took place during the 2000s, when higher education issues were highly visible—something linked to transnational developments like the Bologna process and to large-scale social movements in French universities, most emblematically the mobilization in spring of 2006 against the contrat de première embauche (CPE) (first job contract). More generally, there was increased international competition, with the emergence of comparison tools like the Shanghai ranking, whose criteria revealed the poor performance of the French academic system.  [22]

14But the perception of “problems” in French universities did not take place as a direct response to demands at the international level. Rather, it came about through the commitment to these ideas by strategically important actors.  [23] They did not agree about diagnoses of the problems or possible solutions. On the contrary: following Joseph Gusfield, we can observe that public problems are defined in a field of conflict in which various groups of actors compete to claim intellectual ownership of the problems and solutions and to determine the causalities at work.  [24] Among these actors, university presidents played a decisive role. Over the years, they produced many alarming diagnoses—in the form of op-eds, for example.  [25] But above all, they managed to put higher education on the agenda and promote their reform proposals by establishing themselves as the main source of expertise on higher education. This was shown by the many hearings of university presidents in parliament,  [26] and by their involvement in numerous reports commissioned by successive governments. For example, Bernard Belloc, former president of the University of Toulouse I and vice-president of the CPU (from 2000 to 2002), was commissioned by Luc Ferry in 2002-03 to consider reforming the status of lecturers,  [27] and consulted in 2005 by Christian Blanc, who was preparing a report on French competitiveness. In 2005, Patrick Hetzel, former university president and rector of the Academy of Limoges from 2005 to 2007, was appointed president of the commission set up by the government to consider ways of forming stronger links between universities and the professional world.  [28] These reports identify many dysfunctional aspects of French universities. Such assessments echoed past findings,  [29] and were reproduced in other reports by Parliament and the Cour des comptes.  [30] As insiders, university presidents played a central role in the criticism of their institutions, whose shortcomings gradually came to be recognized as a public problem.

The promotion of “autonomy” as a solution

15As we have seen, university presidents benefited from a particular context and worked in conjunction with other actors to help put higher education on the political agenda. They played a more distinctive role in promoting solutions that involved reforming university governance to increase autonomy.

16In various forms, the principle had been circulating in the debate for decades. In France, claims that universities possessed insufficient autonomy from the state go back to the nineteenth century.  [31] This was the principle behind the 1968 Faure Act and the 1984 Savary Act. In 1986, the Devaquet Act was supposed to place universities in competition with each other, and open the door to selective student admissions, the issuing of degrees at a local level, and variable student fees. Following massive student protests, their violent repression, and police brutality which led to the death of Malik Oussekine, the minister Alain Devaquet had to resign, and the bill was withdrawn. Its provisions were not abandoned, but repeated attempts over the following decades to put them back on the legislative agenda consistently encountered major protests.  [32] In his manifesto for the 2002 presidential election,  [33] Jacques Chirac promised to “increase university autonomy.” But Luc Ferry, the minister in charge of the reform, was soon ousted from the government. His replacement, Fillon, withdrew the bill in late 2004, having concluded that it was too controversial.

17A careful examination of the genesis of these successive reform proposals reveals that expert activity and mobilization by university presidents were an important factor in the persistence of the principle of increased autonomy in the policy stream. Our interviews show the centrality of university presidents in the production of higher education policies. In particular, we reconstructed a dense network of former university presidents employed in the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale, de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (MENESR) (ministry of schools, higher education and research). For example, in the early 1990s, Bernard Belloc was involved in several working groups formed by MENESR. Other influential (former) university presidents mentioned in interviews include Jean-Pierre Finance, who joined Jack Lang’s cabinet at the ministry of education, Josy Reiffers, Luc Ferry’s deputy chief of staff while Ferry was in charge of the same ministry, Bernard Dizambourg, an adviser to Claude Allègre at MENESR, and Jean-Marc Monteil, director-general of the Direction générale de l’Enseignement supérieur (DGES) (directorate-general for higher education) from 2002 to 2007. More recently, Éric Froment, a member of the Conference of European Rectors (1994-98), general-delegate of the CPU (1998-2001), and founding president of the Association of European Universities (2001-05), held positions at the DGES (from 2005 to August 2007). Bernard Carrière, president of the CPU’s research commission (2004-06), was heavily involved in defining policies on university sites and research centers before becoming an adviser to MENESR.

18These actors were the most visible figures in a reformist coalition in favor of a “modernization” of universities, involving increased autonomy and a “presidentialist” approach—which was clearly to their benefit. The place they occupied in a dense network at the intersection of universities, political parties, and administration allowed them to promote these principles. The sustained involvement by university presidents with a common vision in drafting higher education reports helps explain why their conclusions are so consistent. Whether the minister at the time came from the left or the right, university presidents worked together to advocate greater autonomy for higher education institutions. This was the case for the Attali Report (1998), the Belloc Report (2003), and the Hetzel Report (2006), cited above, as well as the Camdessus Report, commissioned in May 2004 by Sarkozy to consider ways of stimulating the economy.  [34]

19Even more directly, university presidents were closely involved in the development of reform projects. Josy Reiffers, in particular, was central to the 2003 bill led by Ferry. Jean-Marc Monteil also worked on several reforms, including the transition to the “undergraduate-masters-doctorate” system, the reform to doctoral programs, and the 2006 Research Agenda Act.

The mobilization of individual university presidents and the formation of an interest group capable of playing the role of political entrepreneur

20While individual university presidents had influenced previous bills, Sarkozy’s commitment to the measure in his manifesto and the development of the LRU Act became the focus of a more collective representation of interests by the CPU. This was made possible by an increase within the CPU of the number of university presidents seeking increased autonomy. From 2004 to 2006, its first vice-president, Yannick Vallée, worked actively to promote greater university autonomy. At the end of his term, in December 2006, Finance, Michel Lussault, and Thierry Coulhon were selected on the basis of a commitment to use the following year to promote their own conception of university autonomy.  [35] This program was paralleled inside the CPU, which organized a conference in March 2006 to clarify its position on autonomy, cooperation, and university funding.  [36] Although there was opposition from within the CPU, it was unable to form an organized front against such an amorphous conception of autonomy.  [37]

21The positions taken by the CPU had a determining effect because of the group’s increasing visibility, which came with the “Sauvons la recherche” movement, the student protests of 2006, and the Research Agenda Act. Gilles de Robien, minister for higher education and research, and his minister delegate François Goulard, had to bring discussion to a close by declaring that autonomy was not on the agenda.  [38] But they could not prevent a public debate from taking place in 2007, and increasingly came to see this issue as an inevitable theme in the election.  [39] The 2006 Research Agenda Act adopted most of the measures from the abandoned reform of 2003—using staff with reduced job security and including companies in the definition of university institutions—but did not address university governance questions.

22The CPU’s mobilization increased in the run-up to the presidential election. This activism developed in an informal way, through personal contact between members of the CPU and political actors who might be able to initiate a reform. For instance, describing the period 2004-06, Yannick Vallée says:


I may have been slightly involved in starting the debate. I remember being with Fillon in Sweden. I had the chance to take the small plane with him and so to discuss it on two occasions for two hours. Monteil was also on the plane. He was director general for higher education at the time... Fillon was fairly well disposed to what I had to say.  [40]

24These exchanges were accompanied by a veritable campaign by the CPU: there were public calls to “reestablish” higher education,  [41] the États généraux de la recherche was brought forward to February 2007 to allow candidates in the presidential election to adopt its proposals,  [42] and there were exchanges with each of the candidates. Sarkozy turned out to be the most receptive to their arguments, and frequent contact was maintained afterwards.  [43] Following Kingdon, who argues that the receptivity of political decision-makers depends less on the partisan nature of the proposal than on the coherence of the political entrepreneur,  [44] it seems likely that the CPU’s relative cohesion helped persuade Sarkozy to adopt their position. As a result, starting in 2005, when he publicly argued for increased university autonomy, he did so using the proposals specified and negotiated earlier with the CPU, and the multiple reports published over the previous decade, mentioned above. In interviews, his advisers explained his motivations for promising greater university autonomy by referring to the fundamental problems the CPU had been discussing for several decades.

The window of opportunity opened by the presidential election: How higher education became a privileged field for issue competition

25The role of political entrepreneur played by the CPU in promoting autonomy as a solution to the problems of French universities was an essential factor, but is not sufficient to explain the fact that Sarkozy kept this manifesto commitment.  [45] Chirac had promised the same reform in the previous election, but this had not been delivered, and these problems had been recognized for years.

26This contrast highlights the fact that not all measures deemed desirable for solving a problem are necessarily adopted, even when the winning candidate includes them in their manifesto. On the one hand, decision-makers cannot act on all fronts at once, and must set priorities.  [46] This is what Kingdon’s model helps us conceptualize, by hypothesizing that a change in public policy requires not just a connection between the problem and solution streams, but also with the politics stream.  [47] On the other hand, fulfilling a commitment depends on its feasibility, which in turn depends not only on the existence of practical solutions, as already mentioned, but also on its potential to bring together a sufficiently broad and strong coalition to overcome potential resistance. These two factors—motivations and capacity—explain why Sarkozy kept a promise Chirac did not. In the next section, we look more closely at the role of motivations and its strategic incentives, showing how the political context of the election opened a window of opportunity for the CPU to act as a political entrepreneur. We will exemplify the capacity to keep promises in the following section.

An effective strategy for appropriating issues from the Socialist Party

27In the months leading up to the 2007 election, Sarkozy faced a double challenge: he had to win the support of his party, in competition with Michèle Alliot-Marie and Dominique de Villepin, and he then had to win a second round of voting, which was expected to be a contest with the Socialist candidate. In this context, he presented himself as the candidate of “renewal” within his own camp, distancing himself from Chirac and his circle, including de Villepin. Sarkozy had campaigned vigorously for university reform since 2005, and this issue offered him a place to distinguish himself by demonstrating substantial willpower.  [48] Beginning in the fall, he increased pressure on the government, calling for “modernization” and “genuine autonomy” for universities and proposing a pilot scheme in volunteer universities  [49]—demands echoed by some UMP deputies.  [50]

28The decision to place university autonomy on the agenda also made sense in the context of the UMP’s opposition to the Socialist Party. Historically, education and the university have been favorite issues of the left—a case of “issue ownership,” in the sense proposed by John Petrocik.  [51] Although the literature has long regarded partisan competition as a struggle to define the agenda, each striving to bring “their own” issues to the fore,  [52] we now know that it is not in any party actor’s interest to abandon an issue to a competitor, and that the ownership of issues is hotly contested.  [53] The appropriation of issues associated with the Socialist Party was central to Sarkozy’s campaign. Emmanuelle Mignon explains that he asked her to work “without taboos,” and that she tried to discuss matters as broadly as possible, including with experts close to the left like Allègre, a socialist, with whom she spoke about higher education.  [54] This strategy led them to “preempt” a series of issues associated with the left: social justice, discrimination, school education, and universities.

29The appropriation of university issues, and the framing of these in terms of autonomy, gives a very clear example of this approach. In his speech at the UMP policy conference on higher education in October 2006, Sarkozy called on the right to come out of its “torpor” on the subject. With a certain irony, he addressed university lecturers:


You may think that, in the past, the left was the way forward. Well, today, the way forward is with us! We support your values: work, meritocracy, progress.  [55]

31The newspaper L’Humanité commented:


For a long time, with the exception of General de Gaulle, the right has had very uneasy relations with academics. This is an electorate Nicolas Sarkozy now hopes to win over.  [56]

33This logic was also expressed during our exchange with Belloc:


Nicolas Sarkozy is at his best when he makes speeches where he’s not expected to... No one was expecting him to speak on higher education. His speech at the Mutualité hall in October 2006 was very interesting, especially coming from the world of the right... He was leading from the front. He said: “Those on the right, until now, have been lazy rulers, especially on this subject; the left had the monopoly over this sector and what did they produce? Hopeless universities.” And no one can deny it, when we compare our universities with many European and North American countries! He said, “Listen, I’m going to do it. It’s not the left, it’s not the right, I’ll make it a subject of national interest and it will be a priority in my manifesto.“  [57]

35According to William Riker, electorally, contesting the issue ownership of one’s opponents is particularly strategically important when there is consensus on the issue in one’s own camp, and when it divides the opposition  [58]: on this model, a “wedge issue” can split apart the opposition camp.  [59] The polysemy of the concept of autonomy allowed Sarkozy to create an “ambiguous consensus” in his own camp and to target voters beyond the right’s traditional electoral segments, while exposing divisions on the left.

The construction of an “ambiguous consensus” in Sarkozy’s camp and a “wedge” among the Socialists

36Sarkozy’s campaign team was marked by several deep divisions: the most economically liberal among them, including Mignon and Fillon, were opposed to those who belonged to the social Gaullist tradition, like Henri Guaino, Sarkozy’s speechwriter. The team was also divided on some social issues and on internationalization, both in terms of globalization and European integration. Some of its members were uncomfortable with the importance given to the theme of national identity from March 2007. These divergences were reflected in the shifting positions adopted by the campaign, which changed according to the context and the timing, and in the voters Sarkozy targeted.  [60] In this context, the apparent consensus on university autonomy seemed remarkable:


There were loads of points of agreement, people generally felt the same way. I remember very well, for example, that when we had prepared the UMP convention on higher education... even people like Axel Kahn, who leans to the left, totally agreed with the principle of autonomy.  [61]

38It was the polysemy—even the ambiguity—of the concept of autonomy that allowed this consensus to emerge: given the situation, autonomy was sought in terms of pedagogy, resource management, recruitment, so-called “innovative” research funding, and strategic decisions like the reorganization of institutions into large research centers.  [62] Some actors thought that the state of public finances meant revisiting the question of free higher education. Others wanted to strengthen relations with the private sector through grants for doctoral programs, joint research teams, and work on topics of interest to the private sector.

39The idea of autonomy took on very different dimensions depending on the context, the field, and the actor. This polysemy created an ambiguity, in the sense in which public policy analysis (particularly MSF) defines the term: “a situation in which a phenomenon can be understood in different ways.”  [63] Unlike the concept of uncertainty, which refers to the inability to accurately predict the outcome of a process, ambiguity is closer to ambivalence.  [64] It is a key element in the execution of reforms: its presence makes it possible to discuss multiple solutions to a problem, and so rally a large number of actors around the reform. Bruno Palier has demonstrated this phenomenon in welfare reform (using the concept of an “ambiguous consensus”)  [65]; Nicolas Jabko has done the same for the EU single market,  [66] and Nikolaos Zahariadis for the liberalization of British transport policy.  [67] A decision-making process under conditions of organized anarchy  [68] allows for a selective presentation of preferences, defusing political conflicts by promoting the discussion of solutions that make sense for different audiences.  [69]

40The ambiguous concept of autonomy played an important role in the development of the position of Sarkozy and his party on higher education. This general principle made it possible to put on the agenda a set of reforms about university finances and internal governance, human resource management, and their relations with society and business. These did not necessarily go hand in hand; taken individually, they would not have attracted such a broad coalition. This flexible operationalization of the concept had already made it possible to bring together a majority of university presidents within the CPU itself, and it now allowed Sarkozy’s camp to converge on a shared position.


As always, there was a lot left unsaid, ambiguities. François Fillon had a very fundamentalist conception of what needed to be done. Nicolas Sarkozy probably already had the idea that we would only take the reform halfway. But it was an idea that was quite unifying. Everyone was behind it.  [70]

42More broadly still, the very open wording of the promise, combined with the commitment to elevate French universities to the rank of the world’s best, enabled the candidate to draw support from voters beyond the traditional electorate of the right. During the campaign and the negotiation process, the various provisions associated with the principle of autonomy were put forward selectively, depending on the public that was being addressed. Sarkozy used autonomy to develop arguments associated with the left (promising to guarantee universal access to university) or the right (excellence in training and research, the use of private-sector financial resources to finance the university). In advance of the election, for example, he secured the support of Julie Coudry, one of the leaders of the movement against the CPE and president of the EC from 2003 to 2008, by promising to include in the legislation an additional project for universities to undertake: facilitating the integration of students in the workforce, one of the EC’s central demands.  [71] David Martinon testifies to the campaign team’s belief in the success of this strategy, describing the distinctive effect of the proposals:


We weren’t used to hearing a candidate say that! I was even surprised: “what’s he saying here?” Because when we look at some of the universities, we can say that they are very, very, very, very far from being the best in the world! But precisely, saying that, like that (he taps on the table), with aplomb and gusto, I thought it was likely to create a climate of enthusiasm.  [72]

44The policy was particularly interesting because the issue of university autonomy divided the officials, activists, and voters of the Socialist Party. This was manifested in differences between candidates for the Socialist primaries, which were commented on extensively in the press.  [73] Strauss-Kahn, and some of his supporters such as Allègre, were very supportive of greater university autonomy and advocated competition between universities,  [74] while Laurent Fabius opposed it; Ségolène Royal carefully avoided the subject in favor of other issues, like student living conditions. Her circle consistently referred to the Socialist Party manifesto, which advocated “the autonomous management of institutions, within the framework of a national budget.” But, as the union representative Jean Fabbri observed, she did not give any further details about this during the campaign  [75]:


Royal’s proposals, which we had encountered in the context of the FSU with the general secretaries of the main FSU unions, were more targeted at primary and secondary education than higher education. In a sense, she produced very general terms for her collaborators, like “autonomy” and “excellence.“  [76]

46Although Royal eventually joined Strauss-Kahn in supporting a diversification of university resources, notably through closer relations with private companies, she remained evasive on the subjects of selective admissions and student fees, admitting that she had “some doubts” about these solutions but did not wish to “close the door.” This lack of precision was criticized by the UNEF.  [77]

47This context of political competition, combined with the visibility of higher education issues in the months preceding the campaign, opened a window of opportunity for promoters of university autonomy.  [78] Sarkozy not only took up these actors’ demands, but actively helped put this reform on the agenda,  [79] and raised the stakes during the period when manifestos were being fleshed out by promising repeatedly that he would introduce legislation in summer 2007.  [80] Theories of issue competition can complement MSF in reconstructing the logic at work in the “politics stream,” and help us understand the very high priority Sarkozy gave this issue—and therefore his determination to fulfill a commitment his predecessor had not kept.

Being able to keep your word: Aspects of the capacity to legislate

48The translation of the electoral manifesto into actual public policies is a question of determination, but also of capacity. It is probably here that the literature on electoral commitments can gain the most from public policy analysis: the conditions of the capacity to operationalize what has been promised are just beginning to be understood, and attention has so far focused primarily on its institutional dimension, starting from the assumption that a party’s manifesto is more likely to be fulfilled when it holds the most power.  [81] But this restrictive conception of the “capacity” to implement an electoral manifesto does not take into account the essential implications of the sociology of public action: the capacity to decide on and implement change does not simply involve control of political institutions.  [82] The concept of political capacity is used polysemically in public policy analysis. Two major dimensions can be distinguished: on the one hand, a technical and operational dimension linked intrinsically to resources (human resources, expertise, and infrastructure) which make it possible to formulate viable political options, weigh them up, and implement them  [83]; on the other, a more political dimension involving the capacity to cooperate with relevant actors, whether public or private, institutional or non-institutional.  [84]

49We approach the capacity to implement an electoral manifesto by reconstructing its institutional, technical, and political dimensions. As we shall see, this finer conception offers a heuristic for examining the role of political entrepreneurs in fulfilling electoral promises. The number of veto points has been the main dimension analyzed in literature on electoral pledges until now; while this casts light on variations between political systems (and mandates), it tells us nothing about why certain promises are prioritized over others. Nor does it help us understand why Sarkozy kept the promise to increase university autonomy where Chirac did not, since both had a parliamentary majority. Considering the two other dimensions of political capacity, however, we find that Sarkozy had more resources to pursue the reform, and that the CPU played a role in this capacity. In fact, the reform was the result of a capacity to carry out the legislative process very quickly, only possible thanks to the technical operationality of the bill immediately after the election—thanks to hard work on the part of the CPU—and the interweaving of political and administrative networks, which made it possible to reduce the normal obstacles on the path from a campaign proposal to a delivered public policy.

A rapid reform to defuse opposition

50Potential resistance to the LRU Act took the form of opposition from much of the academic community, manifested both in large-scale protests and confrontational negotiations conducted by unions. Actors involved in the reform had expected both forms of trouble. Students had recently demonstrated their capacity to mobilize against the CPE. And everyone we interviewed described the demonstrations in 1986 against the Devaquet Act as a traumatic event:


You’re still worried, especially on the right, that when you carry out a reform concerning education, that you’ll suddenly have 300,000 high school pupils, 200,000 university students on the street. And then you’re entering a danger zone... The LRU Act, given what I told you... This worry about student demonstrations... There’s also a long term in political life, that of memory. So, the events of 1986 and the death of Malik Oussekine, or the 1994 demonstrations against the “young people’s minimum wage” remain very present in the collective memory. That can rein in the spirit of reform.  [85]

52This event was obviously on everyone’s mind, and was our respondents’ main argument to explain successive failures to put the issue on the agenda in the past. Several agreed that Chirac, “paralyzed by the memory of the Devaquet affair,”  [86] wanted nothing to do with university governance reform.  [87]

53In addition to student protests, Sarkozy and his circle expected confrontational negotiations with several unions, especially the SNESUP, which several advisers described as “opposing, like traditional leftist unions, anything to do with decentralizing power,”  [88] and as “never supporting reform, on principle.”  [89] Representatives of the FSU had met with Sarkozy several times during the campaign to express their “opposition to an approach which set institutions in competition with each other, the fixation on the Shanghai ranking, the evaluation of researchers, and the presidentialization of institutions.”  [90] Implementing the commitment to increase university autonomy was likely to be a sensitive matter. After Sarkozy’s election, some commentators considered the issue politically risky, or even “explosive,” “incendiary.”  [91]

54In this context, the capacity to complete the legislative process as quickly as possible seemed like a necessary condition for adopting the reform. After the election, Sarkozy immediately confirmed his goal of holding a vote in the summer. This timetable allowed the executive to introduce the legislation during the “honeymoon period” all presidents experience immediately after their election  [92]—and during the summer vacation, which would minimize the scope of protests in universities.


The idea was, above all, that they didn’t want students going out on the street, and the timetable worked well [for the executive] in that respect: it was the end of the academic year, so there was little risk of student demonstrations. We held demonstrations in May, in June, a national appeal and major initiatives at the headquarters of SNESUP between July 14 and the vote on the Act, and they contacted Socialist and Communist deputies to warn them about the law—it’s true, the timetable was against us.  [93]

56This speed also made it possible to minimize the window available for expressing opposition to the bill. The multiplicity of options concealed underneath the unifying concept of “autonomy” was sustained as long as possible, and controversial points about unions and student organizations were not addressed immediately. To defuse increasing student opposition in some Parisian universities and resistance among union representatives, the higher education minister, Valérie Pécresse, used a series of negotiating strategies: providing guarantees on sensitive subjects (selective student admissions, student fees, the national degree framework), making concessions,  [94] and maintaining ambiguity on the most contentious points.

57Criticism could only fully crystallize on 19 June, when she laid out the whole reform project. These attacks came in particular from the SNESUP, the FERG-CGT, and the UNEF,  [95] which were especially concerned about the drastic reduction in the number of seats on universities’ administrative boards, and the number of these which would go to external figures. There was also criticism from the CPU, which challenged the voluntary nature of autonomy and warned against creating a two-tier university system.  [96] On 22 June, the Conseil national de l’enseignement supérieur et de la recherche (CNESER) (National Council for Higher Education and Research), convened by Pécresse, delivered a motion declaring the text “unacceptable in its current state.”  [97] At this point, the conflict was defused by rapid action: Pécresse had only three weeks to finalize the text—a timetable which was sharply criticized by the CPU, the FSU, the Student Confederation, the FAGE, and the UNEF, whose president, Bruno Julliard, complained that the legislation was being “forced through.”  [98]

58In fact, Pécresse presented the first version of the bill even before the working groups she had formed had made their conclusions. She had tried in vain to water down certain provisions in order to defuse opposition by students and lecturers, but had been prevented by inflexibility on the part of Fillon and the general secretary of the Élysée, Guéant.  [99] Following multiple expressions of opposition in the CNESER and the public sphere—especially petitions and opinion pieces by lecturers—Sarkozy made a show of his determination on the issue, and personally took charge of the negotiations.  [100] After meeting with CPU representatives, staff, lecturers, and student organizations, he decided to make concessions on the most contentious points in order to unblock the legislative process as quickly as possible. The adjustments related to the scope of universities’ autonomy, the number of seats on administrative boards, and selection in admissions to Masters programs:


Nicolas Sarkozy was really afraid to get as far as the start of the new academic year without the law being passed, which would have made things much worse. The goal was to get it through during the summer. So he asked me to find two or three points where we could make concessions. I remember a discussion with Jean-Paul Faugère, Fillon’s chief of staff, who was not too keen on having only twenty seats on the administrative boards. The advice ranged between twenty and thirty, so there was some leeway. The text at this point had also abandoned a point that the student unions had made into a real casus belli: selective admissions for the first year of a Masters. Personally, I think that on this point, we could have held out, because it was the honeymoon period, less than three months after the presidential elections. A lot of people supported it, including some unions, and the CPU was for it... These are three weaknesses that were introduced in what later became the LRU Act. But we made concessions on these points: it was a mixture of the CPU, Sarkozy’s fear of uproar, of never seeing the end of it, of not getting the law passed before the start of the academic year. And also a little bit of fear on the part of the prime minister of pushing too hard, too far.  [101]

60These developments were favorably received by the CPU, the student organizations, and several unions: during the Assises nationales de l’enseignement et de la recherche (National Conference on Education and Research) at the beginning of July, the steering committee (the FSU, CGT, UNED, FAGE, CPU, and UNSA) failed to agree that they would demand the withdrawal of the law.  [102] As had been anticipated, the timeframe of events over the summer limited the emerging protests in universities in Paris and Toulouse.  [103]

61Having been examined as a matter of urgency by the Council of State, the bill was passed by the Council of Ministers on 4 July, presented to the Senate on 12 July, and then to the National Assembly on 23 July, where it primarily received minor amendments to the wording. Despite increasingly intense protests outside parliament,  [104] the opposition did not attempt to obstruct the bill, and the debate lasted only three days. The slightly amended bill was passed by the National Assembly, with votes only from the majority UMP-NC group; the left-wing opposition eventually voted against it, criticizing the lack of resources allocated to the reform. After the Joint Committee meeting of 31 July,  [105] the LRU Act was passed on 1 August and enacted on 10 August. The implementing decrees were carried out in October. Universities now had five years to become autonomous in human resource management and budgeting.

62The act was passed by means of a very short legislative process. Its content was kept ambiguous for as long as possible, and then specified over just a few weeks at the time of the year when universities were deserted, leaving opponents with few opportunities to organize a counter-mobilization. The case of the LRU Act shows that the temporality of a reform process is a factor in the capacity to reform, and that the way a political entrepreneur (the CPU in this case) behaves in a network can help make solutions operational (as they have been prepared over a long period), and therefore strengthen the capacity to keep a promise.

A technically operational bill

63The capacity to legislate quickly was particularly great as the LRU Act was the result of earlier discussions within the CPU and in the reports and bills already mentioned. Advisers to Sarkozy and Fillon were able to drawn on all of these. Pauline Ravinet claims that “the LRU Act fully delivered the CPU’s proposals for university governance.”  [106] The expertise developed by the university presidents not only increased the incentives for Sarkozy and his government to reform higher education in response to multiple “problems,” but also strengthened their capacity to do so.

64The fundamental work of reviewing these earlier discussions in order to design a reform was based on debates that took place prior to 2007, as we showed in the first part of this article. It was partly carried out by Sarkozy’s team, led by Mignon. This brought together figures from higher education like Cédric Goubet and Matthieu Louvot, both senior officials and members of the “prospective group” that developed part of the program at the interior ministry; less regularly, the team also included Belloc and Jean-François Dhainaut, a former university president, who participated in the organization of the UMP conference on universities.  [107] Jean-Marc Monteil explained to us that Fillon created a working group to examine possible university governance reform options, and that this group capitalized on the discussions from several years previously, when he was director-general:


We had made files about it, the “Monteil Files,” which we had worked on collectively with the trade unions, with “Sauvons la recherche,” and that’s where the PRES, the ANR, and the AERES came from, and then later the LRU Act... The LRU Act itself was almost ready when the government was formed... Nicolas Sarkozy knew what was in the law on universities, but the work had been done upstream.  [108]

66University presidents had contributed a great deal to the available proposals and gray literature, and these provided advisers with a significant foundation that allowed them to draft the bill in just a few weeks. The first version, which we obtained, was ready in May. This phenomenon can also be seen with regard to other promises made by Sarkozy, such as his commitments regarding family reunification, which were largely inspired by the policies he had initiated as interior minister.  [109] Commonly, the fact that a public policy has already been put on the agenda leads to the formulation of electoral promises, rather than the other way round.

The porosity of political and administrative networks

67The likelihood of seeing an electoral promise fulfilled also increases with the density of the administrative network that prepares and oversees the idea. This factor is likely to vary from one political administration to another, depending on the overlap between the networks involved in producing a manifesto and producing public policies. It also depends on the sector, which determines which actors are involved at each stage.

68In the case of Sarkozy’s term of office, the reform was helped by the fact that it was mostly the same actors—senior officials and former university presidents strongly involved in the CPU, who represented a relatively homogeneous position—who drafted the presidential manifesto and who, both within ministerial cabinets and at the Elysée, helped to define the public policies adopted during the presidency. (This is not always true, as shown by the articles in this special issue on privatization under Lionel Jospin and François Hollande’s promise to close the Fessenheim nuclear power station.) Mignon is only the best known of these actors. Goubet, who was particularly involved in developing proposals for higher education, became the president’s chief of staff and one of the key players in the preparation of the LRU Act. Louvot became technical adviser to the president, having acted as rapporteur for Blanc’s report on French competitiveness, advised Sarkozy at the interior ministry, and helped draft his manifesto. Several former university presidents were also central to developing and implementing the project: after the election, many joined the cabinets of Sarkozy and Fillon, including Belloc, Hetzel, and Monteil.

69This community of actors reduced potential conflicts over how to implement the promise, accelerating the process. It also made it easier to define common ground and to negotiate the law with representatives of the CPU. Monteil acknowledged that “there was obviously a network. I knew all the university presidents. Of course, I had been a university president and had run the Directorate-General for Higher Education a few years before. I have close relations there, so obviously there was a common culture.”  [110] Belloc believes he could have been more forceful with the CPU’s request to impose autonomy on all universities, “but it was hard to be forceful against my friends in the CPU. I was very close to the first vice-president of the CPU, who had been my delegate general during my tenure as head of the CPU in the early 2000s.”  [111]

70The facilitating role of the reforming coalition built from the networks of the CPU was multiplied by the trans-partisan character of this “modernizing” coalition. The careers of several former CPU leaders who have held positions in both left-wing and right-wing ministries testify to this.  [112] While Belloc affirms his position on the right, he also claims that he worked happily with Blanc, “who comes from the left-wing tradition of Michel Rocard” and joined Sarkozy’s team in 2007; that he read the “very interesting” blog kept by Jean-Baptiste François Mela, once an adviser to Allègre and a former university president; and that during negotiations over the LRU Act he enjoyed the support of the three CPU vice-presidents, all closely associated with the left.  [113] For Thiébaut Weber, they “played a key role in this atmosphere of national unity, because they also had very good contacts on the left and with the Socialist Party,” a role confirmed by Fabbri, who mentions that there was “a fairly compatible ideological tone between Sarkozy’s camp and that of the former Socialist ministers of the time.”  [114]

71Our interviews and media analysis suggest that this modernizing coalition  [115] managed to convince a large number of stakeholders, including some union representatives, that there was widespread agreement over the law. Weber claims that “there was this context of national unity—no one called it that at the time, but the subject wasn’t particularly divisive or controversial. The two main candidates, Sarkozy and Royal, had both included university autonomy in their platforms. The LRU Act was seen as a campaign promise that was ultimately implemented without anyone really opposing it.” In fact, those like the SNESUP and FSU representatives—who dispute the claim that there was consensus on the LRU Act—say that their efforts to politicize it by alerting political representatives ran up against lack of interest and passivity:


At the time of the adoption of the law it took a lot of energy to bring the PS round—I met François Hollande at the time—to not supporting the LRU Act... But it was extremely difficult. I met a dozen Socialist parliamentarians and was still negotiating the day before the vote in the Assembly.  [116]

73* * *

74By using a conceptual tool from public policy analysis, Kingdon’s analytic framework, to study the fulfillment of Sarkozy’s promise to increase university autonomy, and by combining this with the concept of political capacity, we can highlight a factor that has so far been neglected in research into electoral commitments: the presence of a policy entrepreneur, acting within networks, who can strengthen incentives to promise and realize a measure, and who can facilitate this realization. We have shown that, in a context exacerbated by issue competition, Sarkozy endorsed a project that had matured in sectoral administrative and political networks where the CPU occupies a central position. This policy entrepreneur intervened in both the creation of the manifesto and the development of the promised reform, and played a role in both Sarkozy’s incentives and his capacity to respect his commitment. In line with existing work on agenda setting, our case study suggests that the likelihood of a promise being kept increases considerably when a political entrepreneur is present who can identify a problem, present themselves as a legitimate interlocutor, propose a solution (perhaps by capitalizing on its ambiguity) which has long been prepared within the “problem stream,” and facilitate its realization.

75The importance of a political entrepreneur depends on two main types of resources, which can affect both the executive’s intention and its capacity to keep its word. The first is the long-term production of expertise, which helps put both the problem and its solution on the agenda, and speeds up the development of an operational decision. The second is a dense network of actors located at the border between the sector involved, politics, and administration—manifested at the individual level in career paths and personal friendships. Our case study shows the value of analyzing the networks involved in the creation of electoral manifestos, which may develop according to very different methods depending on the period and the political parties involved. The existence of such a network facilitated the implementation of Sarkozy’s commitment to reform university governance, but also explains why the Socialist Party, in power since 2012, failed to “reform the LRU Act,”  [117] in spite of Hollande’s pledge to do so, or to review the ANR or the AERES—all established by right-wing governments. Depending on the case, policy entrepreneurs and their trans-partisan networks, such as the one we have identified in the field of university policy, can act as either catalysts or inhibitors in the fulfillment of electoral promises. They therefore constitute an essential dimension of the credibility of these promises.  [118]


  • [1]
    And no longer by a joint vote of the board of directors and the council of studies and university life.
  • [2]
    Hans-Dieter Klingemann, Richard I. Hofferbert, and Ian Budge, Parties, Policies, and Democracy, Boulder, Westview Press, 1994; Jane Mansbridge, “Rethinking Representation,” American Political Science Review 97(), 2003, 515-28. See also Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2009; Adam Przeworski, Susan C. Stokes and Bernard Manin (eds), Democracy, Accountability, and Representation, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1999.
  • [3]
  • [4]
    For example, in his 2007 manifesto, Sarkozy made the following promise: “I want to be the president who keeps his promises.. . . I will not lie, I will not betray you, I will not let you down.” In 2012, in his 60 engagements pour la France (Sixty Commitments for France), François Hollande wrote: “A great debate will take place across the country. To give it its full meaning, I wanted to set out precise proposals to put before you. They are my commitments. I shall keep to them.“
  • [5]
    The proportion who expected a candidate’s economic project to be realized varied from 21% for Philippe Poutou to 47% for François Fillon. Survey carried out by Opinionway for “le Printemps de l’économie,” available online:
  • [6]
    Elin Naurin, “How Widely Held Is the Image of the Promise-Breaking Politician?” in Election Promises, Party Behaviour and Voter Perceptions, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, pp.ˆ69-83; Robert Thomson, “Citizens’ Evaluation of the Fulfillment of Election Pledges: Evidence from Ireland,” The Journal of Politics 3(1), 2011, 187-201.
  • [7]
    For a recent example, see Bruno Fuligni, Une histoire amusée des promesses électorales, Paris, Tallandier, 2017.
  • [8]
    Robert Thomson et al., “The Fulfillment of Parties’ Election Pledges: A Comparative Study on the Impact of Power Sharing,” American Journal of Political Science 61(3), 2017, 527-42; Christophe Bouillaud, Isabelle Guinaudeau, and Simon Persico, “Parole tenue? Une étude de la trajectoire des promesses électorales du président Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012),” Gouvernement et action publique 3, 2017, 85-113.
  • [9]
    For an example and a literature review, see Thomson et al., “The Fulfillment of Parties’ Election Pledges.“
  • [10]
    This continues the work of Nicole Herweg, Christian Huss, and Reimut Zohlnhöfer, “Straightening the Three Streams: Theorizing Extensions of the Multiple Streams Framework,” European Journal of Political Research 45, 2015, 435-49.
  • [11]
    John W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, Boston, Little & Brown, 1984. The MSF approach is used here as a heuristic tool that allows us to understand the central role of policy entrepreneurs in the context of reform, based on an electoral promise: “The expert and skilled advocacy of a policy idea, or skilled brokering, in one context does not produce reform; but exactly the same idea and brokering in a different context does produce reform. This is the causal structure behind the maxim that ‘ideas have their time’” (Robert Ackrill, Adrian Kay, and Nikolaos Zahariadis, “Ambiguity, Multiple Streams, and EU Policy,” Journal of European Public Policy 20(6), 2013, 871-87, here 879. See also Nikolaos Zahariadis, “Ambiguity and Multiple Streams” in Paul A. Sabatier (ed.), Theories of the Policy Process, Boulder, Westview Press, 2014, pp.ˆ25-59; Reimut Zohlnhöfer, Nicole Herweg, and Friedbert Rüb, “Theoretically Refining the Multiple Streams Framework: An Introduction,” European Journal of Political Research 54(3), 2015, 412-18.
  • [12]
    The concept of “capacity” is often used in different literatures to denote the capacity to decide on (or against) a change in public policy and to bring together the resources that will allow the execution of this decision, but different authors give very different accounts of the dimensions of this capacity. This article aims to supplement the concept of capacity as it is used in the literature on electoral pledges, which reduces it to its institutional dimension alone, by drawing on work from the sociology of public action: Clarence Stone, “Urban Regimes and the Capacity to Govern: A Political Economy Approach,” Journal of Urban Affairs 15(1), 1993, 1-28; Xun Wu, M. Ramesh, and Michael Howlett, “Understanding Policy Capacity: Conceptual Framework and Measurement,” Policy & Society 34(3), 2015, 165-71.
  • [13]
    Pauline Ravinet, “La politique d’enseignement supérieur: Réformes par amplification et ruptures dans la méthode” in Jacques de Mayllard and Yves Surel (eds), Les politiques publiques sous Sarkozy, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2003, pp.ˆ361-80; Annie Vinokur, “La loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités: Essai de mise en perspective,” Revue de la régulation: Capitalisme, institutions, pouvoirs 2, 2008,; Christine Musselin, La grande course des universités, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2017.
  • [14]
    See the references below. This aspect of the capacity to carry out a manifesto is examined in detail, in this special issue, in the article on the increase in the minimum vieillesse during Sarkozy’s presidency.
  • [15]
    Richard Salisbury, “An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 13(1), 1969, 1-32.
  • [16]
    Christine Musselin and Maël Dif-Pradalier, “When Merging Appears the Thing to Do: The (Re)birth of the University of Strasbourg,” Revue française de sociologie 55(2), 2014, 285-318; Musselin, La grande course des universités.
  • [17]
    For assessments of the arguments produced in this context, see Les Échos, September 29, 2006; Le Figaro, 3 October 2006; La Tribune, 3 March 2006 and 5 April 2007. In the view of Sarkozy’s adviser on higher education, “The main reason why the grandes écoles developed in France was that the universities abandoned large parts of their collective responsibilities: with regard to professional training, the training of officials, engineers, military officers, and whole subjects such as the science of management were for a long time held in contempt by universities.” Interview with Bernard Belloc, Bordeaux, 24 November 2016.
  • [18]
    Interview with Thiébaut Weber, president of the FAGE from 2006 to 2008, carried out by videoconference, 25 October 2016; interview with Julie Coudry, president of the CE, carried out by videoconference, 29 November 2016.
  • [19]
    The perception of a problem was increased by many conflicts which led lecturers to adopt certain positions over the course of the 2000s. In January 2006, for example, the government was strongly criticized for its decision to remove Bernard Larrouturou from his position in the directorate general of the CNRS, which was seen as “interference” by the state in managing research (La Tribune, 23 January 2006).
  • [20]
    The CPU is an association created by the executive directors of universities and higher education institutions in order to make their voice heard in public debates on higher education.
  • [21]
    For a critical reading of these see Romuald Bodin and Sophie Orange, L’université n’est pas en crise: Les transformations de l’Enseignement supérieur: Enjeux et idées reçues, Bellecombes-en-Bauge, Éditions du Croquant, 2013.
  • [22]
    Sandrine Garcia, “L’Europe du savoir contre l’Europe des banques? La construction de l’espace européen de l’enseignement supérieur,” Actes de la recherche en sciences sociales 1, 2007, 166-7 and 80-93; Christophe Charle, “La loi LRU dans une perspective européenne,” Mouvements 3, 2008, 94-101; Christine Musselin, “Vers un marché international de l’enseignement supérieur?,” Critique internationale 2, 2008, 13-24; Christine Musselin, “Les réformes des universités en Europe: Des orientations comparables, mais des déclinaisons nationales,” Revue du MAUSS 1, 2009, 69-91; Thierry Côme, “La gouvernance des universités,” Gestion & Management public 2(1), 2013, 1-5.
  • [23]
    Musselin and Dif-Pradalier, “When Merging Appears the Thing to Do.“
  • [24]
    Joseph R. Gusfield, The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1984, 15. See also Asa Knaggard, “The Multiple Streams Framework and the Problem Broker,” European Journal of Political Research 54, 2015, 450-65.
  • [25]
    For example, the opinion piece published by Jean-François Dhainaut and Pierre Baumard in Le Monde, 18 August 2006.
  • [26]
    Interview with Xavier Chapuisat, president of the Université Paris-XI from 1999 to 2004, vice-president of the CPU from 2000 to 2002, and president of the PRES UniverSud Paris at the time of the adoption of the LRU Act.
  • [27]
    Propositions pour une modification du décret 84-431 portant statut des enseignants-chercheurs, (accessed 25 February 2017).
  • [28]
    The Hetzel Report is available online: (accessed 25 February 2017).
  • [29]
    See, for example, the Attali Report from 1998, available online: (accessed 25 February 2017).
  • [30]
    In June 2006, for example, a report by the evaluation and monitoring taskforce of the finance committee of the National Assembly (available online: emphasized “oversights in the governance of the university system,” and the failure of large numbers of students. In a connected report, the Cour des comptes noted failures in financial management.
  • [31]
    Interview with Christine Musselin, CNRS Research Fellow, 17 November 2016; Christine Musselin, The Long March of French Universities, New York, RoutledgeFalmer, 2004; Christine Musselin, “Les politiques d’enseignement supérieur” in Olivier Borraz and Virginie Guiraudon (eds), Politiques publiques, vol. 1, La France dans la gouvernance européenne, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2008, pp.ˆ147-72.
  • [32]
    In 1993, Fillon encountered opposition from the Constitutional Council.
  • [33]
    Jacques Chirac, Mon engagement pour la France, manifesto for the 2002 presidential election.
  • [34]
    Among these ten proposals, this report supported “financial and managerial” autonomy for universities (
  • [35]
    Telephone interview with Michel Lussault, vice-president of the CPU (2006-08), 21 November 2016.
  • [36]
    La Tribune, 3 March 2006.
  • [37]
    Interview with Xavier Chapuisat. The general principle of autonomy made it possible to bring together university presidents in a rather broad way, beyond significant internal differences, which are crystallized in particular in more or less interventionist visions of the role of the state in the higher education sector: “On the idea of university autonomy, the logical endpoint is that the ministry has no role to play. In the United States, there are no governmental departments... I think that the notion of university autonomy is totally antithetical to the maintenance of a ministry, or ministries, supervising the sector. Well, we have different views on this point, that’s clear... Jean-Marc Monteil was not for the status quo, he was for more autonomy, but with a large degree of state control. I think we were both for autonomy, but for me this autonomy should involve some competition between universities to allow a hierarchy to emerge.” Interview with Bernard Belloc, cited above.
  • [38]
    Les Échos, 22 February 2006.
  • [39]
    Les Échos, 19 January 2006; Les Échos, 3 March 2006.
  • [40]
    Interview with Yannick Vallée, university president and vice-president of the CPU (2004-06), Grenoble, 7 November 2016.
  • [41]
    La Tribune, 24 October 2006.
  • [42]
    Le Monde, 14 December 2006; Les Échos, 16 December 2006; Le Monde, 16 February 2007; Les Échos, 16 February 2007. Michel Lussault explained, during our interview: “This conference at Metz was the moment when we addressed the political parties. During this conference, we discussed subjects that were at the center of current affairs at the time. The autonomy of universities, of course, but also policies on cooperation between universities. In hindsight, the Metz conference was a very important moment for the CPU because it structured the debate that came after it.“
  • [43]
    Interview with Yannick Vallée.
  • [44]
    Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, 72.
  • [45]
    Similarly, Sarkozy’s unusual personal career path, which several interviewees noted—he did not follow the more common route through the École nationale d’administration, but instead studied at the Université de Nanterre—is not enough to explain the high priority he gave to the LRU Act. On this factor, see Christophe Charle, “Élites politiques et enseignement supérieur: Sociologie historique d’un divorce et d’un échec,” Pouvoirs 161, 2017, 31-50.
  • [46]
    Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics, Chicago, Chicago University Press, 1993; Christoffer Green-Pedersen, “The Growing Importance of Issue Competition: The Changing Nature of Party Competition in Western Europe,” Political Studies 55(4), 2007, 607-28.
  • [47]
    Reimut Zohlnhöfer, “How Politics Matter When Policies Change: Understanding Policy Change as a Political Problem,” Journal of Comparative Policy Analysis 11(1), 2009, 97-115.
  • [48]
    Les Échos, 16 January 2006. We might recall the criticism from Sarkozy and his circle directed at Jacques Chirac for appearing as a “lazy ruler,” who had not shown sufficient initiative in delivering his reforms.
  • [49]
    See, for example, his remarks at a press conference, 12 January 2006, reported in Le Monde, 12 January 2006.
  • [50]
    The UMP deputy Hervé Novelli, for example, tabled an amendment to give universities more autonomy in the short term: Les Échos, 3 March 2006.
  • [51]
    John R. Petrocik, “Issue Ownership in Presidential Elections, with a 1980 Case Study,” American Journal of Political Science 40(3), 1996, 825-50.
  • [52]
    Ian Budge et al., Mapping Policy Preferences: Estimates for Parties, Electors, and Governments, 1945-1998, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001; Stefaan Walgrave, Jonas Lefevere, and Anke Tresch, “The Associative Dimension of Issue Ownership,” Public Opinion Quarterly 76(4), 2012, 771-82.
  • [53]
    Sylvain Brouard, Emiliano Grossman, and Isabelle Guinaudeau, “French Party Competition through the Lens of Electoral Priorities: Issue Competition and Issue Uptake,” Revue française de science politique 62(2), 2012, 255-76.
  • [54]
    Interview with Emmanuelle Mignon, research director at the UMP (responsible for creating the 2007 manifesto) and Sarkozy’s chief of staff from May 2007 to July 2008, Paris, 14 November 2016. See also Joseph Confavreux and Jade Lindgaard, “L’hémisphère droit: Comment la droite est devenue intelligente,” Mouvements 52(4), 2007, 13-34.
  • [55]
    Le Figaro, 5 October 2006. On the same day, Fillon called for the right to “drive out the left from this subject that they think is their own.“
  • [56]
    L’Humanité, 6 October 2006.
  • [57]
    Interview with Bernard Belloc.
  • [58]
    William H. Riker, The Art of Political Manipulation, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1986.
  • [59]
    Lorenzo de Sio and Till Weber, “Issue Yield: A Model of Party Strategy in Multidimensional Space,” American Political Science Review 108(4), 2014, 870-85.
  • [60]
    Interview with Emmanuelle Mignon.
  • [61]
    Interview with Emmanuelle Mignon. This interpretation echoes that of Belloc in the interview cited above (“There was very, very widespread agreement about the idea of autonomy!“) and of Monteil (“It was a measure everyone considered important. . . . The problem of universities, education, and research, at that time, was not an ideological issue“). Telephone interview with Jean-Marc Monteil, 28 November 2016.
  • [62]
    Although “autonomy” was demanded by a wide range of actors, it could take on very different meanings according to the situation: Christine Musselin, La longue marche; Christine Musselin, “Les réformes des universités en Europe.“
  • [63]
    Martha S. Feldman, Order Without Design: Information Production and Policy Making, Stanford, Stanford University Press, 1989, 5.
  • [64]
    Nikolaos Zahariadis, Ambiguity and Choice in Public Policy, Washington, Georgetown University Press, 2003, 2-3.
  • [65]
    Bruno Palier, “Gouverner le changement des politiques de protection sociale” in Pierre Favre et al. (eds), Être gouverné: Études en l’honneur de Jean Leca, Paris, Presses de Sciences Po, 2003, pp.ˆ163-79; Bruno Palier, “Tracking the Evolution of a Single Instrument Can Reveal Profound Changes: The Case of Funded Pensions in France,” Governance 20(1), 2007, 85-107.
  • [66]
    Nicolas Jabko, Playing the Market: A Political Strategy for Uniting Europe, 1985-2005, Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2006.
  • [67]
    Nikolaos Zahariadis, Ambiguity and Choice in Public Policy.
  • [68]
    Michael D. Cohen, James G. March, and Johan P. Olson, “A Garbage Can Model of Organizational Choice,” Administrative Science Quarterly 17(1), 1972, 1-25.
  • [69]
    Nikolaos Zahariadis, “Ambiguity and Multiple Streams“; Nikolaos Zahariadis and Theofanis Exadaktylos, “Policies that Succeed and Programs that Fail: Ambiguity, Conflict, and Crisis in Greek Higher Education,” Policy Studies Journal 44(1), 2016, 59-82.
  • [70]
    Interview with Emmanuelle Mignon.
  • [71]
    This promise was the outcome of a televised debate with Julie Coudry (video available online: Interview with Julie Coudry.
  • [72]
    Interview with David Martinon, chief of staff for Sarkozy’s campaign and spokesman at the Élysée from May 2007 to March 2008, Paris, 24 October 2016.
  • [73]
    Le Monde, 6 and 26 October 2006; Le Figaro, 30 October 2005; Le Monde, 16 November 2006.
  • [74]
    His adviser, Olivier Ferrand, stated: “Universities need to be able to manage their operating and equipment budgets more freely. They must have the ability to recruit, manage their property, and sign research contracts with private companies freely” (Le Monde, 6 October 2006). Other supporters did not approve of this position. Marylise Lebranchu published an article in Les Échos, 7 November 2006, which criticized the policy of creating competition between universities.
  • [75]
    Her campaign manager had to announce, in December 2006, that the candidate wished to “speak very soon on the subject” (Le Monde, 14 December 2006).
  • [76]
    Interview with Jean Fabbri, General Secretary of the SNESUP from 2005 to 2009, carried out by videoconference. 16 November 2016.
  • [77]
    L’Humanité, 5 April 2007. However, on 17 April 2007, fourteen university presidents declared their support for her (La Nouvelle République, 18 April 2007).
  • [78]
    For a model of analysis on the connection between political parties and agenda setting, see Zohlnhöfer et al., “Theoretically Refining the Multiple Streams Framework.“
  • [79]
    Sarkozy distinguished himself by going in person to meet actors of higher education, notably at the Plateau de Saclay, on 18 January 2018, whereas his competitors preferred to receive these actors at their own offices. Interview with Xavier Chapuisat.
  • [80]
    Les Échos, 14 February 2007. The rise in prevalence of the term “autonomy” in Sarkozy’s political speeches was discussed at length in an interview with Jean Fabbri (cited above). It was raised in the closing speech of the UMP conference on research and higher education, 4 October 2006; in a speech at Grenoble, 10 October 2006 (available online:, accessed 26 February 2017); and in interviews with Sarkozy published by Le Parisien, 21 February 2007, and by La Provence, 27 March 2007. See also the letter he sent to university presidents on 16 February 2007. These speeches were heavily covered in the press: Le Figaro, 5 October 2006; Les Échos, 5 October 2006; L’Humanité, 6 October 2006; Le Monde, 6 October 2006.
  • [81]
    Thomson et al., “The Fulfillment of Parties’ Election Pledges.“
  • [82]
    See, for example, Stone, “Urban Regimes and the Capacity to Govern.” This debate is central to the shift from the analysis of “government” to the analysis of “governance,” see Patrick Le Galès, “Du gouvernement des villes à la gouvernance urbaine,” Revue française de science politique 45)1), 1995, 57-95.
  • [83]
    For an overview and a discussion of the definitions of “capacity” involved in this particular conception, see Wu et al., “Understanding Policy Capacity.“
  • [84]
    Stone, “Urban Regimes and the Capacity to Govern.“
  • [85]
    Interview with Éric Aubry, member of the UMP manifesto team in 2007, and social adviser to Fillon from 2007 to 2011, Paris, 29 November 2016.
  • [86]
    Interview with Bernard Belloc.
  • [87]
    The same interpretation was given in an interview with Monteil. He explained that in this context he worked on the Research Agenda Act, which was a less contentious matter for students.
  • [88]
    Interview with Bernard Belloc.
  • [89]
    Interview with Jean-Marc Monteil.
  • [90]
    Interview with Jean Fabbri.
  • [91]
    See, for example, “Ce qu’il faut savoir sur la réforme,” Le Parisien, 1 June 2007; “Audace et doigté,” Le Monde, 21 June 2007; “Universités: Valérie Pécresse se pose en `ministre des étudiants’ pour rassurer les syndicats,” Les Échos, 25 May 2007.
  • [92]
    Richard S. Conley, “From Elysian Fields to the Guillotine? The Dynamics of Presidential and Prime Ministerial Approval in Fifth Republic France,” Comparative Political Studies 39(5), 2006, 370-98. The rapid adoption of the LRU Act also allowed Sarkozy to benefit from the resource of his democratic mandate based on his election. He had just been elected by a comfortable margin, and had clearly announced his intention to grant universities more autonomy. For this reason, the UNEF criticized the first protests against the reform on the grounds that they “went against the result of a democratic vote.” See Le Figaro, 10 May 2007.
  • [93]
    Interview with Jean Fabbri.
  • [94]
    In particular, she promised to address other issues soon, such as student living conditions and a major increase in university funding (an increase of 50% over five years in the university budget, and a “billion Euro boost in 2008” were discussed). See Ouest-France, 24 May 2007; Le Monde, 25 May 2007; Les Échos, 25 May 2007. A project addressing student living conditions was begun on 11 June 2007: La Tribune, 12 June 2007.
  • [95]
    L’Humanité, 20 June 2007; Le Figaro, 20 June 2007; Le Télégramme, 20 June 2007; Ouest-France, 20 June 2007; Le Monde, 21 June 2007.
  • [96]
    La Nouvelle République, 21 June.
  • [97]
    L’Humanité, 21 June 2007; Le Monde, 27 June 2007.
  • [98]
    L’Humanité, 24 May 2007. See also: Le Télégramme, 24 May 2007; Les Échos, 24 May 2007.
  • [99]
    Interviews with Bernard Belloc and Emmanuelle Mignon. During our conversation, Weber also commented on the minister’s lack of room for maneuver.
  • [100]
    Le Monde, 26 June 2007.
  • [101]
    Interview with Bernard Belloc.
  • [102]
    Ouest-France, 4 July 2007. The various positions are explained very well in L’Humanité, 11 July 2007.
  • [103]
    Centre Presse, 3 July 2007. Unlike the bills that came after it, the LRU Act did not lead to any demonstration or occupation of a university at the time when it was adopted. There were controversies within the government, universities, unions, and the CPU, but these remained at a low level. Large-scale protests did develop, but only in November of that year—that is, after the Act had been passed. We thank one of the peer reviewers for this apposite comment.
  • [104]
    University unions from the Midi-Pyrénées region wrote an open letter to Socialist parliamentarians, published in L’Humanité, 21 July 2007, in which they warned against the possible consequences of the Act. In the days that followed, twenty-five organizations (including several higher education unions, but also the LDH, the Magistrates’ Union, the FCPE, “Sauvons la recherche,” and ATTAC) called for the bill to be abandoned.
  • [105]
  • [106]
    Ravinet, “La politique d’enseignement supérieur,” 376.
  • [107]
    Interviews with Bernard Belloc and Emmanuelle Mignon.
  • [108]
    Interview with Jean-Marc Monteil.
  • [109]
    Interview with Maxime Tandonnet, Sarkozy’s adviser on immigration at the interior ministry, member of the team responsible for drafting the manifesto, and adviser at the Élysée on interior affairs and immigration (2007-12).
  • [110]
    Interview with Jean-Marc Monteil.
  • [111]
    Interview with Bernard Belloc.
  • [112]
    Bernard Dizambourg, for example, former president of the CPU, occupied positions as an adviser to Allègre at MNESER, and as special adviser to Pécresse’s cabinet from March 2010 to June 2011. Thierry Coulhon, an ally of Strauss-Kahn, joined Pécresse’s cabinet in 2008, and in 2012 that of the Socialist minister Geneviève Fioraso.
  • [113]
    Interviews with Bernard Belloc and Michel Lussault.
  • [114]
    Interviews with Thiébaut Weber and Jean Fabbri.
  • [115]
    For the role and influence of a reforming coalition, see Bruno Jobert and Pierre Muller, L’État en action, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1987; Sabine Saurugger and Fabien Terpan, “Do Crises Lead to Policy Change? The Multiple Streams Framework and the European Union’s Economic Governance Instruments,” Policy Sciences 49(1), 2016, 35-53.
  • [116]
    Interview with Jean Fabbri.
  • [117]
    François Hollande, 60 engagements pour la France, manifesto for the 2012 presidential election.
  • [118]
    Our inquiry would not have been possible without the support of the Agence nationale de la recherche (ANR) (National Research Agency) for the Partipol project (funded by ANR Jeune Chercheur, project ANR-13-JSH1-0002-01, directed by Isabelle Guinaudeau). We would also like to thank Christine Musselin, Simon Persico, Armelle Jézéquel, and the three reviewers for the Revue française de science politique for their extremely constructive reviews and comments.

This article seeks to explain why the French executive branch led by Nicolas Sarkozy kept its electoral promise to grant universities greater autonomy. While the multiple political projects successively developed since the 1960s to achieve this objective had all failed, the Pécresse Law on the liberty and responsibilities of universities (LRU in French) was successfully adopted less than two months after the 2007 legislative elections. Combining analytical frameworks derived from political sociology and public policy analysis, we identify two essential factors behind the fulfilment of electoral pledges: the mobilisation of a policy entrepreneur, especially when the latter enhances both the motivations and abilities of the executive branch to deliver on its promises.


  • LRU law
  • universities
  • Multiple Streams Framework (MSF)
  • public policy
  • political sociology
  • electoral pledges
  • campaign promises
  • policy entrepreneur
Isabelle Guinaudeau
Isabelle Guinaudeau is a CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research) Research Fellow at the Centre Émile-Durkheim at Sciences Po Bordeaux (Bordeaux Institute of Political Studies). Her current research examines the influence of elections and electoral pledges on public action—this subject was at the center of the ANR Jeune Chercheur Partipol project (2014-18), for which she was the principal investigator. She also works on the politicization of European integration, with an interest in both public opinion and party competition. Her articles have been published in journals such as Political Studies, the British Journal of Political Science, West European Politics, European Union Politics, the Journal of Public Policy, the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, the Revue française de science politique, and Gouvernement et action publique.
Sabine Saurugger
Sabine Saurugger is Professor in political science and Research Dean at Sciences Po Grenoble (Grenoble Institute of Political Studies). She is an honorary member of the Institut Universitaire de France (IUF) (Academic Institute of France). Her current research focuses on the analysis of European public policies, theories of European integration, and the link between law and politics. She recently published, with Fabien Terpan, Crisis and Institutional Change in Regional Integration (London, Routledge, 2016), and The Court of Justice of the European Union and the Politics of Law (Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). She has published articles in journals including Policy Sciences, the Journal of Common Market Studies, the Journal of European Public Policy, the European Journal of Political Research, West European Politics, Political Studies Review, and the Revue française de science politique.
Latest publication on cairn or another partner portal
Uploaded on on 30/04/2020
Distribution électronique pour Presses de Sciences Po © Presses de Sciences Po. Tous droits réservés pour tous pays. Il est interdit, sauf accord préalable et écrit de l’éditeur, de reproduire (notamment par photocopie) partiellement ou totalement le présent article, de le stocker dans une banque de données ou de le communiquer au public sous quelque forme et de quelque manière que ce soit.
Loading... Please wait