Sarkozy Grades His Government

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Patrick Kovarik / Pool / AP

Performance reviews are destined to shake up Sarkozy's cabinet on a regular basis.

There's nothing remotely schoolmarmish in the mien of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, but it appears he's ready to start grading papers and rapping on knuckles to keep his government in line. In the coming months, members of Sarkozy's cabinet will undergo regular evaluations by examiners from a private company assessing each one's productivity — or lack of it. The laggards in Class Sarko won't be held back the way underperforming students do; instead, they could lose their ministerial seats.

On Thursday, government spokesman Laurent Wauquiez confirmed a report in the daily Le Monde that a private consulting firm has been hired to produce quarterly evaluations on how well cabinet members fulfill policy objectives laid out when they assumed office. Reviewing those indicators, Wauquiez explained, will "allow [us] to judge progress made in every area of government activity, [and] evaluate what moves and what doesn't." With those scorecards in hand, French premier François Fillon will meet with his 27 ministers and secretaries of state four times a year to discuss their performance.

Lofty politicians are rarely the best-loved class in any society. Still, the back-to-school prospect of seeing members France's most supercilious set of officials subjected to grading — and scolding when those notes slide — has elicited mirth, skepticism and indignation from Sarkozy's political opponents and pundits. Will Higher Education Minster Valérie Pécresse, for example, have to stand in a symbolic corner if evaluators find too few campuses have embraced her hard-fought university reform? Will French voters actually applaud Immigration and National Identity Minister Brice Hortefeux if he scores high on one of his criteria: expelling enough illegal immigrants to meet the numerical quotas that detractors decry as inhumane? Can Culture Minister Christine Abanel really be held responsible for "the evolution of visits to museums during free entry periods," or the "share of French films" in the nation's cinema market, as stipulated? And will it really be the fault of Education Minister Xavier Darcos if reviewers find that not enough French schoolteachers have rushed to adopt another Sarkozy priority: working overtime?

"As an former teacher myself, I'm used to grading, and I understand the relativity involved," Darcos airily replied to questions about the new system. Echoing Sarkozy's trademark emphasis on results over rhetoric, however, Wauquiez tartly defended the move. "Why should politics be the only domain that isn't subject to an evaluation?" Wauquiez asked.

Good point. But why, then, some pundits have responded, isn't Sarkozy himself being graded in the scheme? Might an official presidential evaluation confirm accusations from his political detractors that the President's much-ballyhooed reform effort has so far produced slim results?

"The short answer is, unlike the government, Sarkozy was elected directly by the people for five years, and those same voters will grade his result in future elections," explains political analyst Alain Duhamel. He notes municipal balloting in March will be the first electoral "grade" Sarkozy faces since his presidential victory. And that, he predicts, will doubtless be followed by a major cabinet shuffle no matter what the result. While the first series of evaluations will not have taken place by then, announcing the system now underlines what Duhamel calls Sarkozy's "culture of obtaining results".

"Sarkozy has repeatedly said reform is as difficult as it is necessary, and because of that, he won't settle for anything but the most capable people in his cabinet in order to give himself and France the best chance of succeeding," Duhamel says. He says the idea of grading ministers was actually pushed by Fillon, despite Sarkozy's wariness it would create more tension in a cabinet already prone to division. "In the end, they realized the scheme will create pressure, but it also provides a useful for measuring reform progress and competency," says Duhamel. "That's entirely new in French politics."