In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Welfare State Reform in France

  • Introduction

Social Work Welfare State Reform in France
Bruno Palier, Tom Chevalier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0194


The French welfare state is often presented as very peculiar. From abroad, it seems both complex and hybrid, since it mixes different logics of social policies. In France, one often emphasizes this complexity in order to show the specific features of such a model, which has two consequences. First, French people are very attached to their welfare state, which seems to them unique in the world, as a treasure to keep safe from globalization. This is an important aspect of the French welfare state, helping to understand the social debate about it and the reforms adopted. Second, this complexity, together with its image of uniqueness, has long prevented French scholars from grasping it as a whole, and from integrating it into a comparative perspective, by establishing a dialogue with the international literature of comparative social policy and Welfare state studies. Traditionally, studies about social protection in France have been the prerogative of historians and administrators in charge of this question. As a result, research has remained segmented along social risk lines, without a more global questioning. Since the 1990s, the French literature on the topic has begun to integrate accounts of the international literature, and to adopt a more comparative approach. This has helped the comprehension of its fundamentally Bismarckian features, since social insurances of la Sécurité sociale constitute the core of the French welfare state. However, the resurgence of social assistance schemes in the 1990s, typical of liberal welfare regimes, has contributed to a blurring of the analysis of the direction that social protection has been taking since then. Nowadays, the literature about the French welfare state is rich and dynamic, adopting more systematically a comparative perspective, which allows an understanding of the reforms undertaken to adapt it to the new socioeconomic context. New paths for further research have opened in order to seize this new context and examine the way social protection could be reformed so as to remain both financially sustainable and fair for everyone. New social risks, such as the conciliation of work and family life, elderly care, or transition to adulthood, need to be at the core of further research. The strategy of “social investment” fostered in the international literature as well as at the EU level, which tries to tackle these risks by changing the paradigm of social policies, lacks implementation in France. It also supposes a dialogue between welfare studies and studies on education, since skill formation is seen as a decisive point from both an economic and a social cohesion point of view.

General Overviews

The French welfare state is both very widespread and very complex. There is an important investment to make in order to enter the world of social protection and to understand its functioning. This is why general books are very useful not only for students, but also for scholars and professionals. In France, senior administrative officials are partly in charge of social protection, for instance in la chambre sociale de la Cour des Comptes or in l’Inspection générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS). There are two consequences of this. First, administrators have long had a monopoly on expertise on the subject. As a result, lots of studies have been done by the research services of the administrations concerned. Second, in order to become part of an administration, one has to pass a very selective competitive examination, and then enter a school such as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) or the Ecole Nationale Supérieure de la Sécurité Sociale (EN3S). Therefore, lots of general and introductory works are written specifically for students preparing for these exams. Professionals create these works for other future professionals. General studies made by researchers are less numerous and are mostly the concern of economists, especially those interested in political economy and from l’Ecole de la régulation.

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