Hollande’s Socialists went into “emergency mode” this Tuesday in an all-or-nothing push to reform a model of French political organization that dates back centuries. The contentious Loi Macron, among other reforms, introduces licensing controls and price restrictions for public notaries. These reforms would free up access to public notaries, at the potential price of dissuading equal access to agents of the law and to the notarial profession itself.
The rhetoric surrounding this debate has unburied ancient words–privilège, corporation, even ordre–that reveal a societal tension that dates to the Old Regime. The French model of corporatism grants privileges to a select group, with clear functions and a distinct identity. This common identity ideally empowers these men and women, yet retains them as loyal agents of the State.
Bureaucratic weight always accrues over time, though, and the personal quality of this French species of bureaucracy makes privilège extremely difficult to repeal in a time of crisis. Members of the maliciously dysfunctional Parisian guild system successfully obstructed free-market reforms throughout the eighteenth century, even on the eve of the Revolution itself. According to Charly Coleman,
[French Controller-General of Finances] Turgot…revived the liberalizing campaign in his decrees abolishing restrictions on trade and the monopolistic privileges of the guilds. These policies provoked the ire of thousands of French subjects, who believed that their subsistence, their livelihoods, and even their very identities had been rendered obsolete with the stroke of a minister’s pen…The reforms, they claimed, would strip them of the property for which they had labored their entire lives, leaving them “a confused multitude that jostles, clamors about, and humiliates itself to attract the wages of consumers.” Bowing to intense pressure from courts, corporations, and consumers alike, the king dismissed Turgot in 1776, and his realm reverted once more to the status quo.
France’s notaries are no different. The notaries are a privileged, licensed corporate body that has flooded the barricades for months to oppose any business-friendly reform. Attorney General Christiane Taubira has even joined the notoires notaires in their struggle, despite (or perhaps because) her role as Attorney General rests at the moral heart of the Socialist regime. Taubira couches her vindication in the language of national equality. Referencing France’s universal educational meritocracy, she holds that an organized system of notaries maintains open access to preferred positions for France’s marginalized.
It’s always been unclear how these enlightened bureaucracies can coexist with the principles of the free market–perhaps the Socialists are divided, too, because they know that they can’t change without also changing the very nature of the system that they hold so dear. France’s corporatist tradition fosters an enviable ethic of egalitarianism and state service, but at the cost of arthritic immobility at the very moments of crisis when flexibility and reform are needed the most.