The Strengths and Benefits of Professional Identity in the Work of French State Engineers


Development of a sense of unity of identity

Bruno Belhoste and Konstantinos Chatzis [1] note that while the emergence of French "technocracy" dates from period immediately after the start of the French Revolution in 1789, the origins of the military corp (Navy, Army engineering and Artillery) go back even further and formed the bedrock of the French State engineering system. These were not the only technical corps that existed under the Ancien Régime. Other civilian technical services had been created in the 18th century. One of these was Ponts et Chaussées (bridges and roads) which was responsible for public works and became an engineering school by the 1750s. The selection and training of the civilian corp was different from the military corp in that members were drawn from the bourgeoisie rather than nobility and received a craft based apprenticeship education. The status and culture of the military and civilian corp were so different that these would not have been considered to be members of the same professional milieu.

The authors explain that after the Revolution, this gap was closed some what when Ponts et Chaussées was transformed into a new school, École Polytechnique with an expanded role which included supplying the military corps with technical experts. Gaspard Monge, a French mathematician and inventor of descriptive geometry, was critical of previous excessive specialisation and believed it was possible to train all round technical experts by teaching them methods of science. By the time Napoleon Bonaparte installed himself as First Consul (1799) nearly almost all civilian and military experts were recruited via the École Polytechnique and there was only one structure for training French state engineers. Homogeneity was the predominant trait of state technical experts and it was characterised by its own values and references.

The authors point out that these values and references gave the state engineering profession an autonomy which allowed then to wield material power through their bureaucratic control over technological activities, and spiritual power through the self-image they projected as major actors in national progress. France was seen not just as a homeland but closely associated with the universality of science and its reflected glory.

The social identity of French state engineers

Antoine Picon [2] looks at the sense of social responsibility of French engineers to explain their adherence to technocratic ideals. She defines "technocracy" as the tendency to give precedence to technological competence over political legitimacy, and to rational administration over the hazards of public debate. She views the transformation from the Ancien Régime to the modern era as one when State engineers began to define themselves as contributors to public utility and progress which in turn was seen to lead to prosperity and regenerated social relations. This could be said to be a preference for an organised society in which scientific and technological competence had precedence. It was attractive to engineers because it was an antidote to conflict between "haves" and "have-nots"; a preference for class co-operation over class struggle. Examples of programs which made use of this approach were French nuclear policy and territorial and urban planning. However this approach never needed to extended to challenging the use of traditional political mechanisms. This accorded with the general belief in the moral and cultural legitimacy of the State and with the State being the true guarantor for civic values and social bond.

French technocracy at work

Arnuf Grubler [3] has noted that the success of the French nuclear Pressure Water Reactor program carried out from 1971 to 1999 was due to centralised decision making, a high degree of standardisation, and relatively short construction times. This was possible because of factors specific to the French political / technical system at the time.

That system was made up of very limited number of institutional actors. Firstly there was strong governmental support for this program and a minimum of public debate. Secondly the engineering actors were extraordinarily well co-ordinated through a small technocratic elite of state engineers from the Corp d'Etat; in particular the Corps des Mines and Corps des Ponts. These actors had a clearly formulated vision, were able to mobilise the necessary expertise and were apt at executing the large scale and complex technology program.

This French reactor program comprising of fifty eight reactors in six step program did have cost escalation over the life of that program. This was primarily because of moves away from standarisation when up-scaling capacity to 1300 MW and also due to "frenchifying" the Westinghouse design. However this escalation was moderate when compared to average US reactor build cost for the same period.

While the author doesn't refer to these, there are another possible reasons for the strong government support of the nuclear programme. One is that the French nuclear tests, which ran from 1960 to 1995, required nuclear power plants in order to produce large quantities of fissionable material. The second possible alternative is that the oil crisis in 1974 is said to have motivated the Government to move to all nuclear electricity generation.


[1] Bruno Belhoste and Konstantinos Chatzis
      From Technical Corp to Technocratic Power:
      French State Engineers and their Professional and Cultural Universe
      in the First Half of the 19th Century
      History and Technology,
      Vol. 23, No. 5, September 2007, pp. 209-225

[2] Antoine Picon
      French Engineers and Social Thought, 18-20th Centuries:
      An Archeology of Technocratic Ideals
      History and Technology,
      Vol. 23, No. 5, September 2007, pp. 197-208

[3] Arnuf Grubler
      The costs of the French nuclear scale-up:
      A case of negative learning by doing
      Energy Policy,
      Vol. 38, 2010, pp. 5174-5188