CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Over the last twenty years, political scientists investigating the reconfigurations of the state through the lens of policy analysis have gradually revised the thesis of a withdrawal of the state that was developed in the 1990s. Recent studies have instead emphasized the ambivalence of the transformations in state powers, [1] and some have even revealed new forms of centralization of public action. Several authors, while examining the dynamics of rationalization within central administration, have emphasized the rising power of political executives or “centralist administrations” in the policy process. [2] Cross-sectoral ministries, especially finance ministries, but also the Ministry of the Interior in the French case, have drawn from the “neo-managerial toolkit” to bring about projects of administrative rationalization and to reinforce their power in relation to sectoral ministries and local authorities. [3] Recentralization can also be seen at the level of executive politics, leading some authors to announce the advent of a “post-managerial” era, [4] characterized by reforms aimed at strengthening the coordination of public policies. The development of “centralized government,” strengthened in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, [5] is manifested in the increase in staff numbers and the creation of services or agencies outside of ministerial hierarchies, placed under the joint oversight of several ministries, or directly attached to the executive. [6] This “executive shift” goes together with a repoliticization of the policy formulation process, [7] and with the deployment of specific “steering at a distance” instruments [8] organizing the interactions between the various actors of the policy process. [9]

2This thesis of recentralization also finds echo in those works that foreground the emergence of a new form of governance based on tools of indirect coercion, which aim to place actors of public action in competition with one another. [10] Scholars have argued that the central state now governs “at a distance” by measuring and quantifying policy outcomes through performance assessment tools, rankings and benchmarking. [11] However, this “hands-off” management of public policy does not entail a withdrawal of the state. Whereas decentralization reforms implemented since the 1980s had weakened the central state monopoly over the production of public policies, Renaud Epstein’s study points to the reassertion of central power in the case of urban regeneration policies. [12] Center-periphery relations are reconfigured by the use of tools such as calls for project proposals, benchmarking, or performance indicators through which the central state sets the goals of local policies. By fostering competition between local actors, who strive to gain material and symbolic rewards from the center, the central state softly constrains them to conform to policy objectives defined at the national level. Therefore, the development of steering at a distance tools would help the center to strike back, while reorienting policies towards local economic attractiveness and international competition. [13]

3These two different perspectives broadly outline a single question regarding the ability of central administrations to govern public policies on a sectoral basis. The case of urban regeneration suggests that the recentralization of public action is operated by and for a central agency, standing apart from the ministerial hierarchy. By granting financial resources to local authorities, this agency becomes increasingly legitimate as a policy maker, [14] while central and local state bureaucracies are losing power. [15] Studies on the “executive shift,” on the other hand, show the strengthening of cross-sectoral regulations issuing directly from the executive and question the persistence of sector-specific regulations. In the light of these findings, what happens to the sectoral dimension of public policies? Should we conclude that central administrations are being weakened, squeezed on both sides by the effects of the “executive shift” and “steering at a distance”?

4This article will contribute to this discussion using a case study from the higher education (HE) sector. This sector is particularly relevant for examining ministerial capacities, since it is sometimes considered to be at the forefront of the “neo-managerial turn,” [16] and presented as being emblematic of the implementation of “steering at a distance instruments.” [17] Indeed, since the 1980s, several OECD countries have instigated reforms in HE policies aimed at developing competition between institutions, in a context of increasing internationalization. France has been no exception; for nearly fifteen years, successive governments have called for the emergence of universities capable of contending with global competition and succeeding in international rankings. In a context of economic austerity, there has been an extension of financing mechanisms based on calls for project proposals that place candidates in competition for public funds [18]—a system that has been established in place of recurrent budgetary financing. The governance of HE policies has also been marked by agencification and the growing role of performance indicators since the creation of the National Research Agency (Agence national de la recherche; ANR) in 2005 and the Evaluation Agency for Research and Higher Education (Agence d’évaluation de la recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur; AERES), which became the High Council (Haut Conseil) in 2014. The shift from a system of equal distribution to a system that concentrates state funding on a smaller number of recipients, the rising power of an agency responsible for organizing the differentiated allocation of funds, and the extension of competitive calls for project proposals all seem at first sight to support the thesis of an institutionalization of “steering at a distance” in HE.

5Furthermore, the creation in 2010 of the “Investments for the Future Program” (“Programme investissements d’avenir”; PIA) seems to suggest a movement of centralization of HE policies in the direction of executive power. This program was announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy himself in December 2009 and funded by a “great loan” taken out in the context of the 2008 financial crisis. Aiming to distribute more than 19 billion euros in HE through a dozen competitive calls for project proposals, it seems in many ways to be the tipping point in a “shift to a competitive regime” in the sector. [19] By entrusting the management of the scheme to a “General Investment Commission” (“Commissariat général d’investissement”; CGI) headed by René Ricol, a close ally of the president, the executive power appears in addition to be undermining the traditional role of ministerial and professional actors in the governance of HE policies, and to advance even further the processes of recentralization and politicization that Renaud Epstein had observed in the case of urban regeneration. Therefore, in this case, “steering at a distance” instruments would serve “centralized government,” at the expense of sectoral regulations.

6However, the specific conditions of the HE sector prevent us from concluding too rapidly in this direction. First, unlike the case of urban regeneration, HE has not undergone a genuine “regionalization,” and its decentralized services have traditionally played a fairly minor role. [20] HE policies, which are negotiated between the state, universities, and the bodies responsible for specific disciplines, [21] are also marked by the significant role of professionals in the governance of the sector. This “co-production” of public action has been augmented by the effect of reforms favoring the managerial autonomy of universities which have strengthened the position of university presidents. [22] Finally, with regard to its objectives, the HE sector is marked by the dominance of the “Napoleonic paradigm,” based on the division between elite institutions (the “grandes écoles”) and universities, and the symbolic coverage of the whole national territory by universities. [23]

7To what extent do “steering at a distance” instruments and processes of “executive shift” transform the traditional governance of the sector and the aims of HE policies? We shall answer this question by studying the origins of the principal call for project proposals in HE that was issued by the PIA: the “Excellence Initiatives” (“Initiatives d’excellence”; Idex). This call for project proposals, announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2009, was supposed to support the emergence of “about ten campuses of excellence with the means, the critical mass, and the industry connections that would allow them to compete with the best universities in the world.” [24] It was issued directly from the executive, via the General Investment Commission, which reports to the prime minister. This call for project proposals also seems a particularly good example of the mechanisms of “steering at a distance,” since it created competition between universities for public funds, with sums on an unprecedented scale. For the first time, the executive explicitly pursued an objective of differentiation between HE institutions, by paying a grant of between 700 and 950 million euros to only eight groups of institutions, bringing together universities and grandes écoles, breaking officially with the Napoleonic paradigm.

8However, our empirical study (described in the box below) strongly qualifies the idea of a break in HE policies, whether this relates to the aims that are pursued or the way in which the sector is regulated. By analyzing the process of developing the call for project proposals, and then its execution, we show how the Idex were steadily reintegrated in the institutional trajectory of gradual HE reform initiated at the start of the 1990s. The article casts light on the dominant role of a “programmatic group,” [25] made up of ministerial reformers, who reshaped the Idex according to a preexisting agenda. By making themselves indispensable in the process of developing and executing the call for project proposals, they reorient the concept of “excellence” towards the objective of a grouping of institutions, rather than a hierarchization of the HE landscape. Furthermore, the role of these actors was not limited to a vague definition of the objectives to be achieved through the conception of “steering at a distance” instruments. The direct intervention of ministerial actors extended far beyond the conception phase, as they tried to shape the reception of this instrument by working with the candidates and organizing the work of the jury. Their control over the policy process rests upon resources that are characteristic of the traditional governance of the HE sector: the production of sectoral expertise and a sustained proximity with professionals. As a result, “steering at a distance” instruments did not replace the traditional governance of the sector but were rather added to it.

9This paper studies three successive sequences of reform, analyzing the roles of several groups of actors in the definition of the objectives and implementation of a policy “for excellence” in HE. First, we demonstrate that the “campuses of excellence” were conceived as a project of hierarchization of HE institutions by representatives of the Ministry of Finance, the executive, and state economists promoting a transition towards “the knowledge economy.” However, we show that the project was considerably remodeled from 2010 by a “programmatic group,” which managed to move the project discreetly towards the ministerial sphere and to reorient its objectives towards the pursuit of the grouping of universities that had been under way since the creation of the “Research and Higher Education Hubs” (“Pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur”; PRES) in 2006. The analysis of the third sequence of reform reveals the concrete conditions of developing and diffusing the call for Idex project proposals. We argue that “steering at a distance” instruments reinforce, rather than replace, the direct relations between the ministry and executive university powers. In the case of HE, steering at a distance does not only lead to recentralization, but also to resectorization.

A qualitative research design

This article is based on empirical research conducted in 2013 while the author was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations (Centre de sociologie des organisations; CSO) and was funded by the “higher education” program of Sciences Po Paris. [26]
Four types of sources have been used: a review of the mainstream press coverage of the “great loan”; 44 semi-structured interviews conducted with 37 actors who were involved in the conception and execution of the PIA and belonging to different institutions (the Juppé-Rocard Commission, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research [Ministère de l’Enseignement supérieur et de la Recherche; MESR], the CGI, the ANR, and the cabinets of the president and the prime minister); a significant body of official publications (reports, hearings of the National Assembly, websites); and many archival documents, which are mainly derived from the MESR and were shared by several actors who were being interviewed (extracts of correspondence, reports of meetings, operating reports, and work documents). We also undertook a systematic study of the professional trajectories of the actors involved, in order to identify the common features of the members of a single “programmatic group.”
By studying together power struggles and ideological conflicts at stake in this reform process, we discuss both the development of new modes of regulation at work in the HE sector and the process of producing the highly polysemous category of “excellence.”

For “excellence,” from the center: Towards a new architecture of HE and its governance?

10In this first part of the article, we explain how research and higher education were placed at the heart of the “great loan” mechanism announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in June 2009. We show the dominant role of representatives of the Ministry of Finance and state economists in the formulation of a policy “for excellence,” which was presented as an attempt to reform, “from the center,” the architecture of HE.

“Excellence” as conceived by the Juppé-Rocard Commission: The end of the Napoleonic paradigm?

11The system of “campuses of excellence,” as it was conceived between July and November 2009 within the Commission working on the great loan, seems to entail overturning the “Napoleonic paradigm” [27] based on the separation of grandes écoles and universities, and on the principle by which the whole national territory should be covered by the university system. Yet there was no hint, when the great loan was announced by the president before the Congress on June 22, 2009, that HE would occupy a central place in the scheme, nor was there any sign of the nature of the project of institutional transformation that was presented six months later. To explain this, we would point to the role played by a small group of state economists and finance officials who, while seeking to reduce the impact of this loan on the management of debt, contributed to constructing a theory that viewed innovation and research as the levers of a policy of economic recovery based on the concept of “potential growth.” Considering scientific “excellence” as the principal motor of future growth, they viewed the reform of the institutional architecture of HE as a necessary condition for the transition towards a “knowledge economy,” which was their stated goal.

12The nomination of a rapporteur-general who had moved from the Treasury and was newly appointed at the Inspectorate General of Finances (Inspection générale des finances; IGF) primarily reflected the desire to limit the final impact of the loan on public debt. Indeed, the announcement of a new loan just six months after the stimulus package of December 2008 caused some concern, even among the government majority. [28] According to our interviews, the use of non-expendable endowments placed on the Treasury’s account, and therefore not counting towards the figure for public debt, was the idea of financial officers during the summer, aimed at neutralizing the impact of the sums invested in the great loan in relation to the obligations of the Maastricht Treaty. But Philippe Bouyoux, former Director of Economic Policy, [29] was not only the guarantor of the budgetary rectitude of the Commission. This senior official, an economist trained at Toulouse, and a graduate of the National School of Statistics and Economic Studies (École nationale de la statistique et de l’administration économique; ENSAE), was also politically close to the government—he participated several times in the cabinets of different right-wing governments from 1995, particularly those of Alain Juppé when the latter was prime minister, then that of Nicolas Sarkozy at the Ministry of the Economy, Finance and Industry in 2004. He would play a role of “mediation and translation” [30] between the president’s discourse on growth and the principle of budgetary rectitude defended by the Ministry of Finance based on the “new theories of growth.” According to interviews, from July of that year he came out in favor of recruiting economists belonging to this school of thought, and suggested names, of which at least two would end up working for the Commission. The concept of “long-term potential growth” made it possible to justify the new loan in the language of the Ministry of Finance, by presenting it as an investment that would support future growth (a “good loan”) and not simply support immediate economic activity. The concept also presented research and innovation as the main levers of this future growth.

13This initial framing of “potential growth” by economic theories was supported by at least three of the six economists working for the Commission. These economists, members of the Council of Economic Analysis (Conseil d’analyse économique; CAE), published these ideas in a report within the Commission in 2007, entitled Les Leviers de la croissance française [The Levers of French Growth], [31] and in the report of the Attali Commission. [32] Among them was Christian de Boissieu, an economics professor, deputy chairman of the CAE, and former member of the Attali Commission, who was close to the finance and banking worlds, where he had held several important positions. Another member of the Commission was Élie Cohen, a university researcher based in the fields of management science and political science, but who described himself as an economist. He was an ally of Philippe Aghion, an economist specializing in questions of innovation and growth, with whom he had co-written several reports for the CAE, including Les Leviers de la croissance française and, in 2004, Éducation et croissance [Education and Growth], specifically devoted to questions of education policy. [33] Finally, the Commission also included Jacques Delpla, trained at the École normale supérieure (one of the grandes écoles) and a graduate of ENSAE. Delpla was an ally of the economist Jean Tirole at Toulouse, for whom he had managed the fundraising campaign to create the Toulouse School of Economics. Like the rapporteur-general, Delpla had served in the cabinet of Nicolas Sarkozy, as the economic advisor between May and November 2004, and previously in the cabinets of successive finance ministers in the Juppé governments between 1995 and 1997, and he had participated with Christian de Boissieu in the Attali Commission.

14This small group of economists, building notably on the works of Philippe Aghion and Élie Cohen, whose 2004 report emphasized the concept of a “technological frontier” and the “necessity” for those economies that find themselves close to this frontier to invest in research and innovation, drew up a critical “diagnosis” of the HE sector in France, which they considered to be ill-adapted to the forms of global competition. They saw the system of higher education and research in France as too dispersed to allow the most highly performing institutions to feature in international rankings. They identified two main causes for this failure: first, the institutional division between grandes écoles, universities, and research organizations; second, the excessively dispersed or “egalitarian” distribution of funds. These were not new ideas. The Attali report, to which several members of the Commission had contributed, had suggested the previous year the creation of ten “multidisciplinary university hubs,” aimed at grouping universities and grandes écoles in order to constitute “campuses of global standing,” with a total investment of as much as 10 billion euros. [34] The proposal had also already been included in the report Éducation et croissance, which recommended in 2004 devoting additional funds “not to an ineffective general distribution, but to promote scientific excellence by means of policies of incentivization,” conducted through the intermediary of an agency with the goal of “facilitating the birth of large institutions [..] in order to constitute bodies of critical mass.” [35]

15For these economists, the “great loan” represented an opportunity to finance the transformation of the institutional architecture of HE in France in the direction of a dualization based on the coexistence of a small number of “research universities” of global standing and regional, even local, universities oriented more towards education. This transformation would take place by means of a concentration of public funds, managed on the model of the American system. The use of endowments to supply a part of the funding of many American universities was held up as a model for the French system. The great loan should therefore provide the means to endow several French universities, selected for their “excellence,” which would not be able to spend the capital itself but would draw each year on the interest from this invested sum. One of the economists, undoubtedly the most fervent proponent of the “American model” in the Commission, told us that he wished to “do with public funds the [same thing that had been] done [at Toulouse] with private funds, but on a massive scale” (interview with a member of the Commission, Paris, October 25, 2013).

16Without exaggerating the unanimity of opinions held by different members of the Commission, everything leads us to believe that this small group of economists played a dominant role in framing the debates about HE. The aim of concentrating funding was all the more strongly supported by the members of the Commission who were based in the HE sector, as they saw themselves as potential beneficiaries of funding from the great loan. Our interviews showed that an HE “sub-group” quickly formed within the Commission, centered around certain individuals who held executive or senior administrative roles in Parisian institutions (École normale supérieure, Collège de France, École polytechnique, Mines ParisTech) or research institutions (National Institute for Agricultural Research [Institut national de la recherche agronomique; INRA], Atomic Energy Commission [Commissariat à l’énergie atomique; CEA]). According to several sources, the members of this group advocated an extreme concentration of funding on two or three sites in France, and sought to direct this funding towards institutions in Paris, which they considered to have been disadvantaged by the Campus Plan. This call for project proposals concentrated on universities was launched in 2008 and aimed at “promoting the emergence of campuses of excellence that would become France’s shop window to the world and would improve the attractiveness and influence of the French university system.” [36] However, in February 2009, the “Paris intra-muros” project had failed to bring together the institutions based in the capital and its financing was delayed. At the time when the Commission met to discuss the great loan, a question mark still hung over the fate of the funds reserved for the projects of the Parisian institutions in the Campus Plan, and this depended on the restructuring of the Research and Higher Education Hubs (PRES), which had stalled. [37] In this context, the concentration of funds from the great loan was viewed, within the HE sub-group, as a second chance to benefit from substantial financial resources.

17The work of the Juppé-Rocard Commission was therefore dominated by a tendency that we could call, to use Philippe Bezes’s expression, a “temptation of the architect.” [38] The economists’ reform project was made possible by the provisional suspension of the usual conditions in which HE policies are conceived and created. It could only be accomplished by creating a structure for administering the program that would involve sidelining the traditional actors of the HE sector.

Steering at a distance.. from the ministry: An attempt at desectorizing HE policies

18The institutional device created in the fall of 2009 ostensibly circumvented the sectoral, ministerial, and professional actors. By entrusting the oversight of the calls for project proposals to a General Commission for Investment under the control of the prime minister, the executive directly challenged the institutionalized modes of governance of the HE sector, characterized by negotiation between the ministry and representatives of professional interests. [39] Even more than in the case of urban regeneration, “steering at a distance” instruments in the case of HE seem to undermine the central administration and serve to establish “centralized government.” [40] From the perspective of the economists of the Treasury, the competitive selection process entrusted to an international jury was thought to legitimize the choice of beneficiaries, while the creation of an “Agency of Campuses of Excellence” responsible for disbursing funds made it possible to maintain control over the funds of the great loan and to protect them from the involvement of central administrations.

19First, the establishment of calls for project proposals soon seemed indispensable to most of the actors of the Commission. According to our interviews, the organization of a process of competition seemed to be a symbolic instrument that would legitimize a strategy of concentration of resources. But the use of foreign colleagues to make up the juries was also widely supported as a way of excluding sectoral and political interests:


We put ourselves in the position of those who would have to choose the projects to fund, and we realized, they’re going to be pestered by lobbies, all kinds of pressure, and especially in higher education there will be a lot of pressure to choose between the regions, to satisfy such and such a head of faculty, or some other kingpin. To take the task of drawing up the list of chosen universities out of the hands of the minister, we needed a completely transparent and objective procedure, with an international jury. We had the idea that university staff from other countries would perhaps be less susceptible to lobbying by local politicians. [41]

21Furthermore, the recommendation to create an “Agency of Campuses of Excellence” placed under the prime minister to administer the endowments bears witness to the distrust with which members of the Juppé-Rocard Commission viewed central administrations, in particular the Ministry of Higher Education and Research. It was, to cite the terms of the report, a matter of guaranteeing the “additional impact” of the great loan in relation to current budgetary expenditure. In other words, the issue for the Commission was to avoid the situation in which the loan would only produce a deadweight effect for the ministries, which would be tempted to use this windfall to finance existing, underfunded projects in a context of general budgetary constraint.


As it happened, the thing that brought about agreement was to say that if we entrusted the money to ministries, we couldn’t be sure what they would do with it. That means that we don’t have confidence in the ministers and administrations, which is terrible, but all the same there was some suspicion that if we entrusted the money to the ministries, they would make a hash of it. [42]

23Considerations regarding control of the funds are very significant in the language of members of the Commission. They also explain the recommendations to impose a time limit of five years in which the successful institutions could receive the benefits of the endowments, and to establish a system whereby the Agency would periodically evaluate the project of each campus. [43] The recommendation to organize a new selection process open to all after this first period of five years was derived both from the principle of offering a second chance to those who did not succeed the first time around, and from a concern to maintain a degree of indirect control over all institutions, by means of a new round of competition. The proposals of the Juppé-Rocard Commission regarding the governance of the future investments therefore consisted in organizing the “steering at a distance” of “excellence” in HE in France by means of mechanisms of competition and evaluation that would organize indirect control over institutions from the center, at the expense of the MESR.

24The mechanism that was actually put in place seemed to allow the PIA to advance one step further towards governance from the center. But although they shared the same mistrust held by members of the Treasury with regard to central administrations, certain members of the cabinets of the prime minister and the president were still reticent about the Agency for Campuses of Excellence and the delegation of responsibilities that its creation involved. The degree of interministerial control, which in the report was limited to a monitoring committee made up of a dozen members, was judged insufficient to face the threat of power being removed from the center by autonomous agencies:


If we were to hand it over to the agencies, then who would control what the agencies do? Would the principle of additional assistance have been respected? But if we were to put it directly in the budget of the ministries, that would be even worse from that perspective. So we said that we need strong control from the center. [44]

26The creation of an Agency of Campuses of Excellence was therefore abandoned in favor of a much more centralized mechanism. The president’s announcement, during the press conference for the launch of the PIA on December 14, 2009, of the nomination of one of his allies, René Ricol, to the post of Commissioner General of Investment, seemed to mark the moment when the executive established its governance of the PIA.

27The role and means of this commissioner were clarified in the weeks that followed, confirming the establishment of “centralized government” control of the PIA. From the start of January, a small team was formed around René Ricol by the former rapporteur-general of the Juppé-Rocard Commission and two other members of the Inspectorate General of Finances (IGF): Jean-Luc Tavernier, trained at the École polytechnique and a graduate of ENSAE, who was former director of the Treasury’s Forecasting Directorate and former director of Éric Woerth’s cabinet at the Budget Ministry; and Florent Massou, a young graduate of the École polytechnique and a Corps des mines engineer, posted at the IGF. The members of this team conceived of the CGI as a central agency for directing the great loan, and one of them made direct reference to the Delivery Unit, established by the UK Prime Minister at the end of the 1990s to establish central control over the policy work of ministries:


At the time, I’d had a discussion, we had a good look around, as we had nothing like this in France. We looked at what happened internationally for this sort of procedure, and we found an example in the United Kingdom, which wasn’t to do with HE, and not necessarily to do with juries, but it was a structure that Tony Blair set up to be sure that the decisions taken by the prime minister would be followed by the ministries. [45]

29Far from being contradictory, the two dimensions of “steering at a distance” and “centralized government” actually constitute two closely-related aspects of a mode of governance of public action based both on a seizure of decision-making processes by the executive and on indirect or incentive-based mechanisms of government, which ultimately have a strong power of coercion. “Steering at a distance” corresponds, as Renaud Epstein emphasizes, to a new form of centralization, which allows the central state to conserve, or even regain, control over the goals of public action and to indirectly obtain compliance from its beneficiaries. [46] This recentralization took place in the case of urban regeneration at the expense of decentralized services and to the advantage of a form of repoliticization of urban policy, made possible by the creation of an agency directly connected to the minister. [47] In the case of policies “for excellence,” the central administration was circumvented by the creation of an interministerial organization, responsible for steering the PIA without the involvement of sectoral interests. This recentralization, which could be compared to similar processes observed in the United Kingdom, [48] nonetheless does not involve a complete withdrawal of all ministerial actors. A certain number of actors close to the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Valérie Pécresse, actually played an important role in the creation of the PIA. This can be seen by means of an analysis of the conditions in which the Amending Finance Bill (Projet de loi de finances rectificative; PLFR) was created, and of the relations between the CGI and the MESR at the time when the call for project proposals was being created.

The custodians of HE policies: The resectorization of the Idex

30This second part of the paper analyzes the building of a reforming coalition within the MESR, which drew on its proximity to the minister and on a robust sectoral expertise to subtly reformulate the meaning of the “campuses of excellence.” We can then observe a form of discreet “reministerialization” of the PIA, resulting not only in ministerial actors returning to the governance of the mechanism, but also in a redefinition of “excellence” in a way that conformed more closely to the trajectory of sectoral reform in HE.

Compensating for the failure of the PRES: A “programmatic elite” dedicated to a ministerial definition of “excellence”

31The MESR did not remain idle in the face of the executive’s centralizing project. The process of producing the PIA gave rise to the constitution of a reforming coalition that gathered actors with convergent trajectories around the ministerial cabinet, and who gradually rallied around a double objective: to restore ministerial control over the PIA, and to return the campuses of excellence to a “site-based policy,” which had been pursued by the MESR since the end of the 1990s. This reforming coalition constituted a “programmatic elite,” in the sense used by Patrick Hassenteufel and William Genieys, [49] and promoted a concept of “excellence” closely connected to the trajectory of reform of the HE sector. While supporting some of the stated objectives of the Juppé-Rocard report—in particular, that of bringing together grandes écoles and universities—, these “custodians of HE policies” defended above all the rationalization of the institutional landscape of HE, at the expense of the objectives of hierarchization and scientific excellence.

32The constitution of this programmatic group took place formally in mid-December 2009, when a small working group was instructed by the ministerial cabinet to consider the implementation of the priorities of the great loan. The choice of entrusting this strategic reflection on the great loan to a small team directly connected to the ministerial cabinet demonstrates the highly politicized nature of the future investments, which is unsurprising given the financial issues at stake. Claire Giry was made the chair of the group, which was called a “project team”—she had recently been recruited to the ministry after serving for two years as technical advisor in the cabinet of François Fillon within the HE hub coordinated by Patrick Hetzel, and had worked on the implementation of the Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities Act (Loi relative aux libertés et responsabilités des universités; LRU) and the Campus Plan. Since April 2009, she had directed the Service for Strategic and Territorial Coordination (Service de la coordination stratégique et territoriale; SCST), nicknamed the “staple service” (“service agrafe”), since it belongs to both directorates general of the ministry. This service was conceived at the time of the ministerial restructuring in 2008 to promote a “cross-sectoral” territorial strategy in research organizations and universities. Throughout the creation of the PIA, she played a pivotal role from this position between the central administration of the MESR and the cabinet of the minister, with whom she was in daily contact and from whom she took her orders.

33We must, however, avoid reducing the project team to a political instrument taking orders from Valérie Pécresse’s cabinet. The trajectories of its members demonstrate a much older proximity with the reforming circles of HE. Claire Gily herself, after an academic training (she studied at the École normale supérieure and completed a doctorate in biology), had occupied several administrative roles at the CEA before advising her employers on questions of institutional changes. She had therefore worked with Pascal Colombani, general administrator between 2000 and 2002, then Bernard Bigot, senior advisor at the CEA from 2003 to 2009, who was himself known for his reforming projects in the cabinets of Claudie Haigneré and Luc Ferry. Together with Claire Giry in the project team, we also find Bernard Carrière, professor and former university president, who had entered the Directorate General for Higher Education and Professional Insertion (Direction générale de l’enseignement supérieur et de l’insertion professionnelle; DGESIP) in 2007, and was a fervent defender of the “site-based policies.” He had notably participated in the “site evaluations” as a member of the National Committee for the Evaluation of Universities and Institutions (Comité national d’évaluation des universités et des établissements; CNE) between 2000 and 2002, before taking an active role, as President of Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg (2002–2007), in the project of merging the universities in the regional capital of Alsace, which was accomplished in 2009. [50] Jean-Richard Cytermann, deputy to the director-general of research and innovation (directeur général de la recherche et de l’innovation; DGRI), also took an active role in the work of the project team. Having trained at the École nationale d’administration and spent all of his career since 1976 at the MESR, he had notably been assistant director of planning and contracts at the new Directorate of Planning and University Development at the time of the launch of the contractual policy by the ministry at the end of the 1980s, which had a widely recognized role in the emergence of the concept of the university site. [51] He had worked in Édith Cresson’s cabinet in 1991 to 1992, and also contributed to the launch of the University Plan 2000, then he participated, as deputy director of Claude Allègre’s cabinet (1997–2000), in the creation of the Innovation and Research Act (Loi sur l’innovation et la recherche) in 1999. Since 2002, he has been a member of the General Inspectorate of the Administration of National Education and Research (Inspection générale de l’administration de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche; IGAENR), and a fervent defender of bringing together universities, grandes écoles, and research institutions. [52]

34Despite the differences in their career trajectories and their political opinions, these actors shared a single conception of the “strategic” reforms that were needed in the sector, in particular the need to pursue the construction of “Research and Higher Education Hubs” (PRES), which had been undertaken in connection with the “Research Pact” in 2006. This is made clear in the archives of the “Coordination Committee,” which was established following a “strategic coordination meeting” held in July 2009, involving the two directorates general of the MESR, [53] and which anticipated the project team, created only a few months later. Chaired by Bernard Carrière, this committee met twice a month starting from the end of September 2009, comprising a dozen participants from the two directorates general, as well as from the “staple service,” in order to “identify the subjects on which the ministry needs to be capable of proposing ideas and solutions to be entered into the political arena, and more generally of developing a vision.” [54] Its most active members included Claire Giry and Jean-Richard Cytermann, who co-authored a report in November 2009 about the PRES, [55] assessing the mechanism and formulating recommendations for the future in the context of the ministry’s territorial strategy. This recommended that the PRES be refocused on “their role in bringing about site-based strategic coordination.” While acknowledging the great diversity of the different PRES that existed in the country, they restated the role of the PRES in structuring the territory, in a broad perspective of integration that could go as far as merging institutions (in particular for the city universities) or creating a level of regional regulation. Finally, the report suggests making the PRES the main interlocutors of the state and local authorities, granting them mandatory powers and delegating to them the responsibility of negotiating contracts with the state on behalf of their members.

35This strategic reflection on the PRES, conducted at the departmental level, resulted in Valérie Pécresse commissioning a report from the IGAENR at the end of November 2009. In her letter of instruction to the chair of the General Inspectorate, the minister took up the same themes as had been addressed by the members of the Coordination Committee, and stated a desire to bring about a “new phase in the development of the PRES” that would “make it possible to assign to the PRES a more explicitly structuring role with regard to the French university landscape,” tending towards a “federalist dynamic.” [56] The minister also mentioned a desire to strengthen cooperation between universities and grandes écoles and links with research organizations, and the possibility of assigning mandatory powers to the PRES. Finally, she raised the subject of the relation between the PRES and campuses of excellence, considering the former as “a lever for bringing about ‘investment for the future’.”

36This return to an emphasis on the PRES by Valérie Pécresse was far from being inevitable, appearing, as it did, soon after the implementation of the Liberties and Responsibilities of Universities Act (LRU), which could have forestalled the policy of restructuring by granting more independence to universities and strengthening the power of their presidents. However, as Christine Musselin has shown, this potential contradiction between institutional autonomy and institutional grouping did not appear to be a problem for HE reformers. On the contrary, it seemed to be resolved by the construction of a reforming narrative that presented both of these elements as contributing to the “construction of a new order in the university system” that would “bring an end to the exceptionalism of the French system,” [57] which was characterized by a supposedly ineffective separation of the grandes écoles, universities, and research organizations. “Site-based policy” and “institutional autonomy” were reconciled in the eyes of ministerial actors on the grounds that they both belonged to an attempt at administrative rationalization, with the objective of making the sector easier to manage, or in other words, to consolidate ministerial power vis-à-vis university executive bodies that had been created since 1990 as the main interlocutors of the central state. [58] Whereas this work of rationalization had remained small in scope in the 2006 reform, without substantial funding attached to it, [59] the PIA represented for the ministerial reformers an opportunity to finance this transformation of the institutional landscape of HE. Furthermore, the expertise of the project team had an even greater influence since the CGI was still being formed and lacked any independent expertise on these matters.

The MESR and governance of the Idex: Between expertise and politicization

37The return of the MESR to a role in the governance of the PIA is connected to the very sustained activism of members of the ministerial cabinet. Drawing on the expertise of the members of the project team, they succeeded in obtaining favorable outcomes in the interministerial negotiation of the institutional design of the reform. The MESR was especially active from the moment of the publication of the Juppé-Rocard report: the political stakes were proportional to the substantial budget, which the ministry was unwilling to see entrusted to a rival organization. A memo was soon produced by the “staple service” to alert the minister to the threat of the Agency of Campuses of Excellence. [60] This argument was taken up a few days later by the two directors-general, alerting the cabinet to the fact that “the MESR must not intervene as, or be perceived as, a supervisory structure for campuses that do not have excellence as their goal.” [61] Consultants were even brought in by the cabinet, who also emphasized the risk of the ministry having “diminished responsibility,” and being “reduced to day-to-day management” as a result of a strengthened ANR. [62]

38The interviews that we carried out consistently emphasized the thorough preparation of the representatives of the MESR and their ability to make their influence felt as indispensable actors over the course of the interministerial work that took place between the publication of the report on November 19 and the announcement by the president on December 14, 2009. In particular, they assured that the future investments would be integrated in the budget of the Interministerial Mission for Research and Higher Education (Mission interministérielle recherche et de l’enseignement supérieur; MIRES), contrary to the recommendation of the Juppé-Rocard report to entrust budgetary responsibility for the PIA to the prime minister. This decision had significant political implications, since it placed the “Thematic Projects of Excellence” and “Excellence Hubs” programs under the responsibility of the director of financial affairs of the MESR and gave ministerial actors power over the composition of the budget document. From that point, even when the Amending Finance Bill, passed March 9, 2010, initially seemed to confirm that central administrations had been excluded by entrusting the CGI with the responsibility of validating the specifications of the calls for project proposals and by making it the main interlocutor of the ANR, the absence of the ministry in the formal mechanism of governance of the PIA actually concealed the ministry’s omnipresence in the concrete processes of creating the program. This is demonstrated, for example, by the justification from the very beginning for the “campuses of excellence” policy, which repeats almost word for word the terms of the “memo” produced for the ministerial cabinet by the consultants mentioned above.

39The return of the ministry to power in this matter was also achieved through the construction of a decision-making process that was favorable to the MESR, through the establishment of a “steering committee,” which gradually asserted itself as the place where decisions were made concerning the execution of the PIA’s work. The steering committee met weekly, starting from January 10, 2010, and included several members of the ministerial cabinet, representatives of the directorates general, the director of financial affairs, and the chair of the SCST. Although the committee might initially appear to be a strictly ministerial body without formal decision-making power, it was nonetheless the principal place where expertise about the PIA was produced, in a context in which the CGI had not yet been created as an administrative organization. Drawing on the work of the project team, the ministerial actors gathered in this committee took the lead by creating elements of “frameworks for specifications” for each of the actions that would be undertaken in the program of future investments of the MIRES. In its very first meeting, on January 10, 2010, the steering committee therefore commissioned the project team to produce a memorandum establishing the “general principles” and “essential criteria” for the selection of “campuses of excellence,” and a “detailed plan of specifications.” [63]

40From February 2, 2010, despite a provision of the PLFR that assigned to the ANR the task of composing an “approval committee” [64] to validate the selection of successful bids that had been proposed by the various juries, the steering committee took over this responsibility, thereby becoming a decision-making body. The ANR was therefore relegated to the role of implementing the decisions of the steering committee, which led to conflict between the leadership of the agency and the ministerial cabinet. The ANR, having gradually established its legitimacy since its creation in 2005, based on its political autonomy and its peer-review procedures—and all the members mentioned in interviews that this conformed to “ISO standard 9001”—, looked unfavorably on the steering committee’s intrusion into what it considered to be its own remit: the composition of the calls for project proposals and the appointment and organization of the juries. The creation within the agency of a department specifically devoted to the execution of the PIA, and the refusal to support it using the agency’s existing resources—as a result, thirty new members of staff would be hired—also demonstrate, according to our interviews, the distrust among the management, who sought to isolate this highly “politicized” program from the normal activities of the ANR, which the management did not want to see swallowed up. In fact, our interviews confirmed that, from the perspective of ministerial services, the great loan also represented an opportunity to reassert their oversight over the ANR, and, more generally, over the implementation of research policy. The term “operator,” used in the jargon of the project team to refer to the ANR, is therefore illustrative of the relation of subordination that the ministerial actors intended to (re)establish with an agency whose autonomy was considered to be excessive.

41The central role of the steering committee in the governance of the PIA was strengthened further the following month, when the ministry proposed to the CGI that it should send a representative to organize the “coordination” of the program’s implementation. The archival documents to which we have had access show that ministerial actors supported, at this meeting, a “coordinated option,” in which “the CGI and the MESR would together create a governmental proposal.” [65] Presented as “the most efficient and least costly [option] for the state,” [66] this “solution” had the result of institutionalizing the role of the MESR in the creation of the PIA, by internalizing within the steering committee the judgments that would otherwise have taken place under the purview of the prime minister. Since the steering committee remained under the control of Valérie Pécresse’s cabinet director and included several members of the MESR, drawing on the sectoral expertise of the project team and consultants, this mechanism offered the MESR a convenient place from which to negotiate with the CGI, reducing the risk of seeing its undertakings undermined later on down the line.

42Finally, the central role of the MESR in the execution of the PIA was assured by the nomination within the CGI itself of actors drawn from the ministry, who maintained, like those belonging to the project team, a high level of proximity with the ministerial cabinet and more generally with HE reformers. Even though the management team of the CGI was made up of finance inspectors protecting the will of the executive, thematic operational hubs, covering the different budgetary programs associated with the actions of the PIA, were headed by ministerial actors. Thierry Coulhon was appointed in April 2010 with responsibility for the “centers of excellence” hub, which included actions relating to campuses, but also to research groups and centers for excellence. Coulhon’s background was as a university academic—former President of Cergy-Pontoise University and former Vice President of the Conference of University Presidents (Conférence des présidents d’université; CPU)—and he was also the former deputy director of Valérie Pécresse’s cabinet. In June 2010, he was joined by two other colleagues from the MESR, Jean-Pierre Korolitski and Jean-Michel Dion. Both came from an academic background, pursued an administrative career, and were close allies of Jean-Marc Monteil, former director general of higher education, who was later employed in François Fillon’s cabinet. Korolitski, a veteran of HE policies, had entered the ministry in 1982, was a member of the IGAENR, and had just submitted to the minister a report on the PRES and the grouping of university sites. Dion was the former head of the University Research Service (Service de recherche universitaire; SRU), which he had created together with Jean-Marc Monteil.

43Although the recruitment of these ministerial actors raised some concern among the finance inspectors of the CGI (“would they play ball with the CGI, or would they be the eyes and ears of the minister?”), [67] their sectoral expertise and their legitimacy in the eyes of sectoral actors were an important resource for the CGI, as an advisor to the prime minister attested:


The people that he [René Ricol] picked to be responsible for the hubs were people with legitimacy. They weren’t always on the same page, they might disagree on certain points. There were people with, let’s say, unique perspectives.. But they had legitimacy. That is, in this environment, people could confidently say that their interlocutor.. wasn’t some know-nothing upstart. [68]

45Reciprocally, ministerial actors, who had not been able to prevent the creation of an inter-ministerial organization, sought by means of this strategy of exercising power outside the ministry not only to neutralize competition from the CGI in the governance of the future investments, but also to circumvent sectoral administrative channels, which the ministerial cabinet viewed as being inefficient:


The CGI quickly realized that it needed the ministry’s expertise for the dossiers, as well as the work of the juries, and we needed a small group that could make decisions quickly and that was close to the prime minister, so. [69]

47The definition of the conditions of implementation of the PIA, in the first few months of 2010, therefore reveals the return to power of ministerial actors, who had seemed until then to be sidelined by the mechanism of “centralized government.” This was achieved through the mobilization of a small number of actors who constituted a reforming coalition around the cabinet of the minister Valérie Pécresse. Far from being a “rebureaucratization” of the PIA, the process of “resectorization” of the Idex by the MESR involved a certain politicization of the program, in the sense that it was treated by ministerial leaders (directors-general, members of the cabinet) as being “obviously political,” [70] rather than being treated as such by the services of the central administration. This politicization of the PIA provided some other senior officials in the sector with an opportunity to pursue older reforming projects through the mechanisms of the steering committee and within the CGI itself.

Beyond instrumentalization: The ministerial creation of institutional groups

48This third part of the article examines the actual process of creation of the PIA, from the composition of the calls for project proposals to the appointment of the international jury responsible for examining the Idex applications. We shall demonstrate how the instruments of steering at a distance were accompanied by the direct intervention of ministerial actors, who used those instruments to perpetuate certain traditional forms of regulation of the sector.

The call for Idex project proposals, a highly ambiguous instrument of steering at a distance

49Critical works on “steering at a distance” emphasize the role of instruments such as calls for project proposals, rankings, or benchmarking in the emergence of a new form of centralization that is no longer based on the exercise of direct coercion from the center over the periphery, but on a process of bringing the objects of public action into conformity with central objectives by means of structures of competition. [71] However, by studying the creation of the Idex project proposals, we shall show that this is a profoundly ambiguous instrument, which involves two distinct, even contradictory, concepts of “excellence.” The uncertainty created by the instrument opened the way for more traditional forms of regulation of the HE sector by ministerial actors.

50Between January and September 2010, the content of the call for project proposals was the subject of several discussions within the steering committee, supplemented by the work of the project team, which was working in particular on the definition of the aims of the “campuses of excellence” operation, the specific expectations for candidates, and the selection criteria for the successful candidates. The archival documents to which we had access confirm that the “campex” [72] continued to be conceived as a powerful financial lever for pursuing the developments that had been undertaken with the creation of the PRES by the Act of 2006. To recall the terms used by a member of Valérie Pécresse’s cabinet, “the Research Act of 2006 had created a certain number of tools, but these tools had to be activated, or, in other words, had to be funded.” [73] The mechanism of the “campuses of excellence” then took on the function of promoting, thanks to a large financial incentive, the grouping of the universities and grandes écoles present in a given geographical territory.

51This idea was integrated, through the steering committee, into the process of composing the call for Idex project proposals. Besides the memo on the PRES, delivered to the committee at its first meeting on January 19, 2010, a “campex file” [74] was drawn up, which promoted the idea that “excellence” should be considered as “a prerequisite” of any application, and not as the criterion for judging the selection of successful candidates. It was a matter of “concentrating the whole evaluation on the actors’ ambition to transform the campuses in question, and the way in which they would accomplish it,” [75] or, in other words, on the institutional dimension of the project. As the document states explicitly, “this step effectively neutralizes the criterion of research excellence, by no longer considering it as a criterion of evaluation.” [76] We can therefore observe in the documents produced by the MESR a reformulation of the compromise set out by the Juppé-Rocard Commission, favoring one of its initial elements—institutional grouping—at the expense of other objectives, in particular the aim of hierarchizing the academic landscape or strengthening links with businesses and the economic sector, which did not disappear but became lower priorities. By means of this discreet redefinition, “excellence,” as used by the ministerial actors, became a synonym for organizational reform. The rationalization of HE policies would be achieved, in their view, by establishing a “site-based policy,” which had already been anticipated by earlier reforms, and which could be accomplished through the resources offered by the “great loan.”

52However, this redirection of the proceedings by ministerial actors, which had wide implications, did not pass unanimously. The finance inspectors at the head of the CGI and advisors close to the president remained somewhat distrustful of the PRES, which were considered to be excessively large structures and too heterogeneous to embody “excellence.” The minutes of the steering committee of May 25, 2010 indicate that a meeting held on May 21 between the cabinet directors for Valérie Pécresse and the prime minister and the chief of staff of the French president had brought to light a “reticence regarding the PRES. A large difference between the ways in which the actors were structuring the project and the perception of the PRES at the highest level of the state.” [77] The executive’s distrust of the PRES fed into the idea of concentrating funding on certain projects of excellence within the campuses that would be created. This resulted in the development of a concept that introduced a difference between the support structure of the project and the elements that would receive funding: the concept of a “perimeter of excellence.” This “perimeter,” which, according to the terms of the call for project proposals “represents all of the research and educational activities of global excellence defined by the Idex and having a large effect on the structuring of the site,” [78] is not to be confused with the grouping of institutions (“the site”) that is referred to as “supporting” the project. In opposition to the idea of a “critical mass,” which is often invoked as a necessary condition for the international visibility of institutions, the advisors of the executive defended instead, using the concept of the “perimeter,” a much narrower concept of excellence:


Ask universities, grandes écoles, and research institutions on a given site to define what is best on that site, whether it is theirs or not (a very bold approach), and to tell us what they could do together, including in terms of organization and governance, and tell them to present this project [..]. I don’t see how some great behemoth of 50,000 or 100,000 students can embody excellence. [79]

54Two concepts of “excellence” took shape, then, one based on the idea of the “site,” the other on the “project.” The concept of a “perimeter of excellence” promoted by members of the CGI and the executive amounted to an orientation towards “projects,” which involved a concentration of funding within a given “site,” and therefore the hierarchization of the elements making up a given campus. It differed from the use of the term by ministerial actors, more focused on integration, and which promoted a campus logic. The change in terminology that took place in the spring of 2010 and established the term “excellence initiative” in place of “campus of excellence” was directly connected to this debate.

55The call for Idex project proposals published on September 27, 2010 therefore reflected the ambiguous character of the objectives that it was supposed to support. Although the “structuring and integrating role” of the policy was clearly set out in the description of the context for the call for project proposals, and although the establishment of “renewed governance” had a prominent place in the projects’ evaluation criteria, the reference to the “perimeter of excellence” also appeared repeatedly to recall, for example, that funding “would be subject to a commitment by the project promoter regarding its concentration.” [80] The reintegration of the PIA in the HE reforming trajectory that began at the end of the 1990s was not, then, limited to the formal indications contained in the call for project proposals. In reality, to understand the implications of the ministerial actors’ representations of “excellence,” we must examine the work carried out directly by actors from the MESR in establishing a framework for project promoters and members of the Idex jury.

Accompanying candidates, orienting the juries: An instrument implemented under ministerial influence

56Besides the content of the call for project proposals, the ministerial contribution to the Idex involved a work of framing carried out by ministerial actors, who undertook to “accompany” project promoters and to “organize” the work of the jury. The establishment of “steering at a distance” by means of a competitive call for project proposals therefore did not exclude, in the case of HE, direct intervention from the ministry. Far from limiting their role to the definition of general aims encapsulated in an instrument of public action, the central administration also sought to control the reception and uses of the call for Idex project proposals. To that end, ministerial actors continued to draw on the usual resources employed in this government sector: sectoral expertise and direct contacts with university executive bodies.

57The work of “accompanying” candidates, with the aim of clarifying the objectives, scope, and time frame of the different calls for project proposals, was gradually rolled out from spring 2010. For the actors belonging to the ministerial reforming coalition, the aim was to extend the work of framing that they had undertaken through the activities of the steering committee. From April 2010, a collection of documentary resources was put online for the benefit of candidates, including in particular a “glossary” that briefly defined each of the actions and contained links to “files” organized by the action in question, which would explain certain aspects of those actions. On June 1, 2010, an information day was organized at the ministry for the benefit of members of the scientific community. The different calls for project proposals of the PIA were presented to the representatives of the different disciplinary sectors involved (“health and biotech,” “natural sciences,” and “social science and humanities”), in the presence of the minister. It is noteworthy that, even though the content of the calls for project proposals had not yet been definitively decided upon, the Idex were presented there concisely as the “gathering together, based on a territorial logic, of the higher education institutions that had been recognized for their scientific and educational excellence.” [81] We find once again the ministerial actors’ idea of excellence as a prerequisite, and their emphasis on the organizational dimension in their conception of the Idex.

58Furthermore, the members of the project team worked from mid-July to establish a system of “personalized strategic accompaniment” of candidates. [82] A working document addressed to the cabinet emphasized the objectives of “visibility” and “legitimacy of the MESR on the ground,” as well as the ambition to “be familiar with the projects underway and to be able to speak about them before the actors make choices about them.” Site-based meetings were planned systematically between mid-September and mid-November in order to “consider the appropriateness of the ideas of candidates preparing proposals, without claiming to influence their strategic choices and actors’ decisions.” [83] It was of course, for the minister, a means of informally maintaining control over candidates’ preparation of their proposals, and of framing candidates’ responses towards the idea of institutional groupings.

59Indeed, this system of accompaniment was far from neutral. It allowed the minister to disseminate, by means of documents distributed to candidates and the advice that was given to them, a certain conception of excellence. For example, at each meeting a dossier was created that could “characterize” the site and help the candidates in their applications, at the request of the project team, who used the different ministerial services that were available to do so. The project team drew in particular on the STRATER documents (concerning “territorial strategy”), drafted by the Architectural Mission of the SESR and Territories (Mission de l’architecture du SESR et des territoires; MAST), that gathered data on the different sites. The project team also asked ministerial services to produce documents summarizing the “main elements” of each site in terms of training, research, and innovation. These documents, bringing together varied data, ranging from the evaluation of research institutes to data on students’ professional insertion, and remarking on the presence of competitiveness hubs on the site, built up an image of each of the sites, which was even less neutral when we consider that it was also communicated to the members of the Idex jury. Minutes from these meetings demonstrate that the role of the MESR on this occasion went far beyond that of simply providing information. Whether they were acknowledging a “good idea” from the candidates or identifying an “oversight,” these meetings allowed the ministry to direct the applications and to informally define the expectations of the call for project proposals. The institutional dimension appeared to be central in the discussions that they held with candidates. From January 2011, the system of accompaniment gained an institutional footing, as a “unit of information and accompaniment” was established within the MESR as a sort of “one-stop shop” for answering candidates’ questions.

60Besides accompanying candidates, the ministry also intervened directly in the process of creating the Idex jury and in the organization of its work. Two contradictory logics structured the choice of members of the jury. Although the use of an unimpeachable competitive selection procedure was unanimously presented in interviews as a necessary condition to assure the legitimacy of the process, the presence of Thierry Coulhon on the jury as an “observer,” and also that of Philippe Gillet, former cabinet director for Valérie Pécresse, who had by then returned to an academic role at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, suggests that the CGI and MESR had not given up on exerting influence on the jury’s work. Equally, the decision to seek foreign lecturers and researchers, on the grounds that this would avoid conflicts of interest within the world of French academia, had the advantage of freely allowing administrative actors to guide the jury’s work. The fact that the members of the jury had only a limited knowledge of French institutional issues and their technical and financial aspects effectively provided an opportunity for ministerial actors to position themselves as the providers of this expertise. A large body of documentation was therefore provided to members of the jury in order to “brief” them, as well as a “multi-criteria evaluative rubric,” created by the project team together with the CGI, which placed the greatest emphasis on institutional criteria. [84] A team of the IGAENR, led by Jean-Richard Cytermann, was entrusted directly with a project of financially analyzing the projects before the selection process. [85] It was able to present the jury with “warnings” about certain dossiers and to “suggest questions that members of the jury might want to ask during interviews.” Finally, more or less formal discussions took place between the ministerial actors and the president of the jury before their work began. For example, a meeting between the minister and the president of the jury was organized on January 14, 2011, preceded by an informal dinner the day before. The main points raised by the minister concerned previous ministerial initiatives and the importance of moving towards “groupings of institutions” and a “simplification of the landscape.” [86]

61Although our study, as it is focused on the origins of the policy mechanism, does not allow us to show the various appropriations that it was subject to during the period after the selection of the successful candidates, [87] it leads us to highlight that, beyond the ministry’s instrumentalization of the mechanism under the guise of directing “the choice and use of the tools,” [88] the ministry’s intervention was also conducted through the more traditional means of direct contact with local actors. The ministerial actors were omnipresent in the preparatory stage of the call for project proposals, and were also active at the moment when it was established, and in this context they deployed the resources typical of the sectoral regulation of public action. Without aiming to predict the results of this process, which are likely to be resisted or undermined, we can nonetheless conclude that the ministry’s interventionism, in framing the candidates’ responses and the work of the jury, went far beyond a form of “steering at a distance,” which would be based only on the use of indirect coercion by means of placing the beneficiaries in competition with one another.


62Compared to the reforms undertaken in Germany or Spain, the policies “for excellence” enacted in France were characterized by the importance attributed to organizational criteria and the “governance” of university sites in the choice of successful candidates, instead of criteria related to the content and scientific quality of the projects. This particular meaning of “excellence” in the French context can be explained, in our view, by the mobilization of a reforming ministerial coalition in the process of creating the PIA, which managed to reintegrate the program—even though it was presented as being “exceptional”—in the trajectory of gradual reform of the HE sector. The mobilization of a small number of reforming actors, who, despite their sometimes considerable political differences, shared a single conception of HE policies, suggests the constitution of a “programmatic elite” in HE, which found in the great loan an unprecedented opportunity to advance its own reforming agenda. The excellence initiatives therefore contributed to a movement of institutional grouping that had been undertaken since the end of the 1990s, and which substituted the objective of rationalization in place of that of hierarchization, which had been promoted by the theorists of the “knowledge economy.”

63Our analysis of the process of creating the Idex also allows us to discuss the existence of new forms of centralization in the governing of public action, in relation to the “executive shift” and the use of “steering at a distance” instruments. In fact, we have shown that the adoption of instruments of indirect coercion, such as placing the beneficiaries of public funds in competition with one another, is accompanied, in the case of HE, by a reinforcement of the ministry’s ability to govern the policies on a sectoral basis. Despite the initial sidelining of the ministry, which seemed to indicate a shifting of power between the MESR and the central executive, ministerial actors were able to impose their will in the mechanism of managing the Idex, notably by infiltrating the centralist mechanism. In this way, they took an active role in the construction of applications, as well as their evaluation. In contrast to the example of urban regeneration, studied by Renaud Epstein, the recentralization in this case benefited ministerial actors rather than an agency situated outside of administrative hierarchies. This can be explained most notably by the availability of sectoral resources that the ministerial actors could draw upon, in terms of both expertise and contacts with HE professionals, especially members of university executive bodies. The ANR remained, with regard to the Idex, mainly limited to a role of executing decisions made at the ministerial level. The transformation of the sector’s forms of governance was therefore one of hybridization, in which the mechanisms of “centralized government” and the instruments of “steering at a distance” were made to serve a sectoral policy of grouping universities.

64Finally, this case study leads us to emphasize, building on other works, the institutional resilience of the “Napoleonic paradigm” and the very gradual nature of its “overturning.” [89] Although the establishment of excellence initiatives undoubtedly contributed to increasing the differentiation between HE institutions, the objective of concentrating funding was significantly curtailed by the large number of calls for project proposals that were announced in the context of the PIA. The funding of “research centers of excellence” outside the groupings recognized by the Idex is a first example of this dispersal of funds, as were the calls for project proposals for the “I-Site” scheme, published in the context of “PIA 2” under the presidency of François Hollande, which led to the endowment of nine new university groups. We must therefore stop short of claiming a “shift to a competitive regime” in the HE sector, but the policies “for excellence” did nonetheless contributed to a gradual transformation of the institutional landscape and the regulatory systems of HE. Although the strengthening of ministerial abilities to govern the sector appears clearly in our study of the creation of the mechanism, it does not constitute the establishment of a form of vertical governance over the university sites. The work of implementing the Idex in fact reveals the work of co-construction that took place during and after the contractualization phases, which we have not studied here. Clearly, the policies “for excellence” seem to contribute to the institutionalization of a bilateral relationship between the state and university presidents. They are therefore an integral part of the historical trajectory of reform of the HE sector, which has been characterized since the 1980s by the emergence of universities as organizations and the gradual withdrawal of disciplinary bodies in the governance of university policies. While the creation of twenty groups of universities and institutions (Communautés d’universités et d’établissements; COMUEs) in the framework of the Law on Higher Education and Research of 2013 seems to involve the institutionalization of “site-based policies,” [90] the question of the relationship between these COMUEs and the Idex at the local level remains open. This relationship illustrates the difficulties of “contradictory instructions” [91] relating to principles of competition and cooperation respectively, which characterize policies in HE.


  • [1]
    For two recent summaries, see Stephan Leibfried, Évelyne Huber, Matthew Lange, Jonah D. Levy, Frank Nullmeier, and John D. Stephens, eds., The Oxford Handbook of Transformations of the State (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Desmond King and Patrick Le Galès, eds., Reconfiguring European States in Crisis (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017).
  • [2]
    Philippe Bezes, Réinventer l’État: Les réformes de l’administration française (1962-2008) (Paris: PUF, 2009). Translator’s note: Unless otherwise stated, all translations of cited foreign language material in this article are our own.
  • [3]
    Philippe Bezes and Patrick Le Lidec, “Politiques de la fusion: Les nouvelles frontières de l’État territorial,” Revue française de science politique 66, no. 3 (June 2016): 507–41.
  • [4]
    Tom Christensen, “Post-NPM and Changing Public Governance,” Meiji Journal of Political Science and Economics 1, no. 1 (2012): 1–11.
  • [5]
    Martin Lodge and Kai Wegrich, eds., Executive Politics in Times of Crisis (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
  • [6]
    Katharine Dommett and Matthew Flinders, “The Centre Strikes Back: Meta-Governance, Delegation, and the Core Executive in the United Kingdom, 2010–14,” Public Administration 93, no. 1 (2015): 1–16.
  • [7]
    B. Guy Peters, Carl Dahlström, and Jon Pierre, Steering from the Centre: Strengthening Political Control in Western Democracies (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011).
  • [8]
    Martin Lodge and Kai Wegrich, “Executive Politics and Policy Instruments,” in Executive Politics in Times of Crisis, 118–35.
  • [9]
    Bengt Jacobsson, Jon Pierre, and Göran Sundström, Governing the Embedded State: The Organizational Dimension of Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
  • [10]
    Pierre Lascoumes and Patrick Le Galès, eds., Gouverner par les instruments (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2004); Charlotte Halpern, Pierre Lascoumes, and Patrick Le Galès, eds., L’Instrumentation de l’action publique: Controverses, résistances, effets (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2014).
  • [11]
    Nikolas Rose and Peter Miller, “Political Power Beyond the State: Problematics of Government,” The British Journal of Sociology 43, no. 2 (1992): 173–205.
  • [12]
    Renaud Epstein, “Gouverner à distance: quand l’État se retire des territoires,” Esprit 319 (2005): 96–111; Renaud Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine: Démolition-reconstruction de l’État (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2013); Renaud Epstein, “La Gouvernance territoriale: Une affaire d’État: La dimension verticale de la construction de l’action collective dans les territoires,” L’Année sociologique 65, no. 2 (2015): 457–82.
  • [13]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine, 304.
  • [14]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine, 239–44.
  • [15]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine, 216.
  • [16]
    Alberto Amaral, V. Lynn Meek, and Lars Waelgaard, The Higher Education Managerial Revolution? (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2003).
  • [17]
    This hypothesis is also presented by Renaud Epstein, see La Rénovation urbaine, 322. Furthermore, certain governments have even made “steering at a distance” an explicit aim of HE reform: Walter Kicker, “Steering at a Distance: A New Paradigm of Public Governance in Dutch Higher Education,” Governance: An International Journal of Policy and Administration 8, no. 1 (1995): 135–57.
  • [18]
    This type of funding mechanism is not new, and the recent period is notable less for its invention than for its generalization of this method in a context of a reduction of recurrent funding. See Jérôme Aust, “Financer la recherche sur projet: Figures historiques d’un dispositif de gouvernement,” Genèses 94, no. 1 (2014): 2–6.
  • [19]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine, 322.
  • [20]
    Jérôme Aust and Benoît Cret, “L’État entre retrait et réinvestissement des territoires,” Revue française de sociologie 53, no. 1 (2012): 3–33.
  • [21]
    Erhard Friedberg and Christine Musselin, L’État face aux universités: En France et en Allemagne (Paris: Anthropos, 1993); Christine Musselin, La Longue marche des universités françaises (Paris: PUF, 2001).
  • [22]
    Jérôme Aust, “Le Sacre des présidents d’université: Une analyse de l’application des plans Université 2000 et Université du troisième millénaire en Rhône-Alpes,” Sociologie du travail 49, no. 2 (2007): 220–236.
  • [23]
    Jérôme Aust and Cécile Crespy, “Napoléon renversé? Institutionnalisation des Pôles de recherche et d’enseignement supérieur et réforme du système académique français,” Revue française de science politique 59, no. 5 (October 2009): 915–38.
  • [24]
    Press conference by Nicolas Sarkozy, President of the Republic, on the priorities to be financed by the national loan, Paris, December 14, 2009, accessed June 6, 2019,
  • [25]
    William Genieys and Patrick Hassenteufel, “Qui gouverne les politiques publiques? Par-delà la sociologie des élites,” Gouvernement et action publique 2, no. 2 (2012): 89–115; William Genieys and Jean Joana, “Bringing the state elites back in? Les gardiens des politiques de l’État en Europe et aux États-Unis,” Gouvernement et action publique 3, no. 3 (2015): 57–80.
  • [26]
    I would like to offer my warm thanks to Jérôme Aust and Christine Musselin, who instigated this study and who contributed to improving this article through their readings of its earlier drafts. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers of the Revue française de science politique for their constructive comments.
  • [27]
    Aust and Crespy, “Napoléon renversé.”
  • [28]
    Cf. Olivier Baccuzat, “Philippe Séguin sceptique sur l’emprunt,” Le Parisien, June 24, 2009; Cécile Crouzel, “La France face au dérapage de ses déficits: les députés UMP ont trouvé un milliard d’économies à réaliser,” Le Figaro, June 24, 2009; Lucie Robequain, “À l’Assemblée, les experts des finances publiques expriment leur inquiétude,” Les Échos, June 24, 2009; Patrick Roger, “À droite, l’emprunt Sarkozy soulève des interrogations: d’anciens Premiers ministres et des élus mettent en garde contre le risque d’une fuite en avant,” Le Monde, June 26, 2009.
  • [29]
    This was the name adopted by the Forecasting Directorate when it was integrated under the oversight of the Treasury in 2004.
  • [30]
    Jean-Michel Eymeri, “Frontière ou marches? De la contribution de la haute administration à la production du politique,” in La Politisation, ed. Jacques Lagroye (Paris: Belin, 2003), 63.
  • [31]
    Philippe Aghion, Gilbert Cette, Élie Cohen, and Jean Pisani-Ferry, Les Leviers de la croissance française (Paris: La Documentation française, 2007).
  • [32]
    Rapport de la Commission pour la libération de la croissance française, under the chairmanship of Jacques Attali (Paris: XO éditions/La Documentation française, 2008).
  • [33]
    Philippe Aghion and Élie Cohen, Éducation et croissance (Paris: La Documentation française, 2004).
  • [34]
    Rapport de la Commission pour la libération de la croissance française, 37–39.
  • [35]
    Aghion and Cohen, Éducation et croissance, 110–11.
  • [36]
    “L’Opération Campus: un plan exceptionnel en faveur de l’immobilier universitaire,” accessed June 6, 2019,
  • [37]
    Bernard Larrouturrou, “Pour rénover l’enseignement supérieur parisien: Faire de Paris la plus belle métropole universitaire du monde, c’est possible!”, report to the Minister of Higher Education and Research, Paris, October 5, 2009; press release by Valérie Pécresse, “Faire de Paris la plus belle métropole universitaire du monde,” October 5, 2009,, accessed June 6, 2019.
  • [38]
    Philippe Bezes, “La ‘mission Picq’ ou la tentation de l’architecte: Les hauts fonctionnaires dans la réforme de l’État,” in Le gouvernement du compromis: Courtiers et généralistes dans l’action publique, ed. Olivier Nay and Andy Smith (Paris: Economica, 2002), 111–47.
  • [39]
    Friedberg and Musselin, L’État face aux universités; Musselin, La Longue marche.
  • [40]
    Peters, Steering from the Centre.
  • [41]
    Interview with the Commission, Paris, May 2, 2013.
  • [42]
    Interview with the Commission, Paris, May 2, 2013.
  • [43]
    “Investir pour l’avenir: Priorités stratégiques d’investissement et emprunt national,” report of the Commission under the chairmanship of Alain Juppé and Michel Rocard, 57-9, accessed June 6, 2019,
  • [44]
    Interview with the cabinet of the Prime Minister, Paris, June 26, 2013.
  • [45]
    Interview with CGI, Paris, May 3, 2013.
  • [46]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine; Epstein, “La gouvernance territoriale.”
  • [47]
    Epstein, La Rénovation urbaine, 217–26.
  • [48]
    Dommett and Flinders, “The Centre Strikes Back.”
  • [49]
    Genieys and Hassenteufel, “Qui gouverne les politiques publiques?”.
  • [50]
    Christine Musselin and Maël Dif-Pradalier, “Quand la fusion s’impose: La (re)naissance de l’Université de Strasbourg,” Revue française de sociologie 55, no. 2 (2014): 285–318.
  • [51]
    Christine Musselin, La Grande Course des universités (Paris: Presses de Sciences Po, 2017), 36–42.
  • [52]
    An example of this is his presentation of the ongoing developments and appropriate reforms of the sector in the dossier entitled “Universités et grandes écoles,” which he published in the journal Problèmes politiques et sociaux 936 (May 2007).
  • [53]
    Strategic Coordination Meeting DGESIP/DGRI, July 8, 2009, minutes dated July 24, 2009, archives of the MESR.
  • [54]
    Strategic Coordination Meeting DGESIP/DGRI, September 25, 2009, minutes, archives of the MESR.
  • [55]
    Jean-Richard Cytermann, Bernard Carrière, and Claire Giry, “Les PRES aujourd’hui: quelques éléments de réflexion et préconisations,” working paper dated November 20, 2009, 10.
  • [56]
    General Inspectorate of the Administration of National Education and Research (Inspection générale de l’administration de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche; IGAENR), “Développement des PRES et reconfiguration des sites universitaires,” report to the Minister of Higher Education and Research, signed by Pascal Aimé, Thierry Berthé, and Jean-Pierre Korolitski, March 2010, 106-108.
  • [57]
    Musselin, La Grande course, 174.
  • [58]
    Aust, “Le Sacre des présidents d’université.”
  • [59]
    Aust and Crespy, “Napoléon renversé?”, 921.
  • [60]
    “Premières réactions DGESIP sur le grand emprunt, rapport de la commission,” November 20, 2009, archives of the MESR.
  • [61]
    Note from the Director-General for Higher Education and Professional Insertion and the Director-General for Research and Innovation to the Minister, care of Philippe Gillet, cabinet director, undated, archives of the MESR.
  • [62]
    Analysis of foreign higher education systems, “Mémo de synthèse relatif aux propositions de la Commission ‘Investir pour l’avenir’,” November 25, 2009, 7, archives of the MESR.
  • [63]
    Steering Committee of the MESR for the great loan, meeting of January 12, 2010, 5, archives of the MESR.
  • [64]
    Steering Committee of the MESR for the great loan, meeting of Feburary 2, 2010, 1, archives of the MESR.
  • [65]
    Steering Committee of the MESR for the great loan, Organisation des phases de structuration, accompagnement et évaluation/décision, Paris, March 8, 2010, PowerPoint presentation, archives of the MESR.
  • [66]
    MESR, Great loan, Higher education and research, steering committee, March 16, 2010, PowerPoint presentation, archives of the MESR.
  • [67]
    Interview with the CGI, Paris, May 15, 2013.
  • [68]
    Interview with the cabinet of the Prime Minister, Paris, June 26, 2013.
  • [69]
    Interview with the cabinet of the MESR, Paris, April 10, 2013.
  • [70]
    Eymeri, “Frontière ou marches?”, 47-77.
  • [71]
    Epstein, “La gouvernance territoriale.”
  • [72]
    According to the documents that we consulted, the “campex” changed their name to “Idex” (“initiatives d’excellence”) in May 2010.
  • [73]
    Interview with the cabinet of the MESR, Paris, July 10, 2013.
  • [74]
    “Campus d’excellence” file, presented by the project team to the Great loan steering committee on January 19, 2010, document dated January 16, 2010, 6, archives of the MESR.
  • [75]
    “Campus d’excellence” file, presented by the project team to the Great loan steering committee on January 26, 2010, document dated January 24, 2010, 6, archives of the MESR.
  • [76]
    “Campus d’excellence” file, presented by the project team to the Great loan steering committee on January 26, 2010, document dated January 24, 2010, 8, archives of the MESR.
  • [77]
    Steering Committee of the MESR for the great loan, meeting of May 25, 2010, archives of the MESR.
  • [78]
    “Initiatives d’excellence—Idex,” call for project proposals, published September 27, 2010, 6.
  • [79]
    Interview with the cabinet of the President of the Republic, Paris, June 13, 2013.
  • [80]
    Interview with the cabinet of the President of the Republic, Paris, June 13, 2013, 7.
  • [81]
    MESR, “Investissements d’avenir, mode d’emploi: réunion d’information, mardi 1er juin 2010,” archives of the MESR.
  • [82]
    Bernard Carrière and Claire Giry, “Investissements d’avenir: accompagnement stratégique personnalisé–modalités de mise en œuvre,” document dated July 15, 2010, archives of the MESR.
  • [83]
    MESR, “Investissements d’avenir, accompagnement des projets: 3 septembre 2010,” PowerPoint presentation, archives of the MESR.
  • [84]
    This rubric was named the “radar Idex,” and we were able to access several versions of it in the archives of the MESR.
  • [85]
    Draft minutes of the steering committee, January 18, 2011, archives of the MESR.
  • [86]
    “Point jury Idex pour entretien avec la ministre,” exchange of emails between the members of the project team, January 7, 2011, archives of the MESR.
  • [87]
    Works have started to be published on this question. Cf. Musselin, La Grande course.
  • [88]
    Charlotte Halpern, Pierre Lascoumes, and Patrick Le Galès, “Introduction: l’instrumentation et ses effets: Débats et mises en perspectives théoriques,” in Halpern, l’instrumentation de l’action publique, 17.
  • [89]
    Aust and Crespy, “Napoléon renversé?”.
  • [90]
    Musselin, La Grande course, 197–203.
  • [91]
    Musselin, La Grande course, 259.

This article examines the emergence of new forms of centralization of the policy process in France, drawing on an analysis of the policies “for excellence” in higher education and research introduced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in 2009. Discussing jointly the theses on the “executive shift” and on the development of “steering at a distance” instruments in the government of public policies, this article demonstrates how a sectoral “programmatic elite” has managed to serve its own agenda by redefining “excellence” in accordance with a preexisting project of institutional reform through the grouping of institutions. Rather than radically transforming the traditional Napoleonic paradigm, policies “for excellence” appear to represent a gradual process of rationalization in higher education and research, characterized by a strengthening of ministerial abilities to govern the sector.

  • executive shift
  • steering at a distance
  • higher education
  • programmatic elites
  • rationalization
Natacha Gally
Natacha Gally is a lecturer in political science at the Université Paris-II Panthéon-Assas and a member of the Center for Studies and Research in Administrative and Political Science (Centre d’études et de recherches en sciences administratives et politiques; CERSA—UMR 7106). Her work is concerned with reconfigurations of the state and administrative elites, studied from a comparative perspective. She has recently published: “La haute fonction publique comme marché du travail fermé: professionnalisation des élites et clôture de l’espace administratif en France et en Grande-Bretagne à la fin du 19e siècle,” in Professionnalition(s) et État: Une sociologie politique des groupes professionnels, ed. Flora Bajard, Bérénice Crunel, Caroline Frau et al. (Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2018), 155–184, and, with Émilie Biland, “Civil Servants and Policy Analysis in Central Government,” in Policy Analysis in France, ed. Charlotte Halpern, Patrick Hassenteufel, and Philippe Zittoun (Bristol: Policy Press, 2017), 101–118. CERSA, Université Paris-II, 10 rue Thénard, 75005 Paris
Latest publication on cairn or another partner portal
Uploaded on on 25/09/2019
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