France’s traditional way of coordinating the bureaucratic implementation of government policy has been through the Prime Minister’s Office (Secrétariat général du Gouvernement), which has a staff of 100. However, since the last decade, France has adopted a whole-of-government approach (WGA) that is generally referred to as the ‘approche intégrée’. Indeed, the French civil service does not use the term ‘whole-of-government approach’, its acronym or even the official French translation from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Development Assistance Committee (OCDE-DAC): ‘Approche a l’échelle de l’ensemble de l’administration’.
At the moment, the French ‘approche intégrée’ is still strictly limited to defining and implementing the national strategy for responding to external conflicts and crises in an integrated way under the banner of the so-called ‘3 D’s’ (diplomacy, defence, development). The 3D system is still strictly limited to security, development and diplomacy (i.e. peacemaking). Granted, the AFD, France’s development agency, did list “support for the private sector in vulnerable contexts” as part of its WGA strategy for the 2017–2021 period (AFD 2018: 24), and when commenting specifically on the Sahel situation, President Emmanuel Macron referred to a link between climate change and armed conflicts. However, such issues are generally beyond the scope of the ‘approche intégrée’ system. Ministries, such those in charge of trade or environment issues, are not brought into an ‘approche intégrée’ process unless this is explicitly requested by the president or the 3D ministries. In this case, they would send one or two specialised agents/experts to high-level meetings at the Elysée Palace or elsewhere, whose involvement would be kept to a necessary minimum and would not be placed on a formalised and/or permanent basis.
Macron is the first French president to have ever explicitly referred to the 3D formula, which he did in speeches delivered to the Annual French Ambassadors’ Conference in 2017 and 2018. Under the highly presidential and centralised system of the France’s Fifth Republic, such formal speeches are an overarching statement for developing any further governmental action in a strategic field.
For France, adopting a WGA strategy to responding to crises and conflicts in developing countries was the consequence of the decision to join the international coalition in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, DC. From the start, its involvement had a military (troop deployments in the field) and a civilian (development projects) aspect, with the latter projects being viewed as supporting further military action in the medium to long terms. Both were part of what was acknowledged in the West at the time as an ‘end-state strategy’ that would supposedly lead not only to a military victory as a final stage, but also (and as a final stage) to a permanent state of ‘sustainable peace’ featuring economic and social development under a fair, inclusive and democratic system of governance.
Emerging WGA concepts were discussed among the coalition’s member states in military circles (in particular, within and around the NATO network) and among official development assistance (ODA) institutions, whether bilateral (national) or multilateral (international). The conceptual debate focused on the OECD-DAC’s semi-formal efforts with specialised subsidiary bodies on conflicts and, under American and British pressure, on ‘fragile states’ after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although it was not a member (and was very critical) of this new coalition, France did opt to send representatives to the forum on fragile states held in London in January 2005, which was jointly organised by the OECD and the World Bank. French development experts – originally from the AFD and subsequently also from what was then the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development – participated in an international process that led to the “10 principles for good international engagement in fragile states” that were defined by consensus and formally adopted (at the ministerial level) by the OECD-DAC members in April 2007 (OECD 2007).
The fifth of the above-mentioned principles (“Recognise the links between political, security and development objectives”) led France to adopt additional WGA strategies at the national level. However, the government body directly responsible for ODA got this process off to a somewhat tentative and slow-moving start. For example, the OECD-DAC reference document of 2006 titled “Whole of Government Approaches in Fragile States” (OECD 2006) had no noticeable impact on governmental processes in France at the time. Nevertheless, in 2006, France’s Ministry of Defence did ask the AFD to become a civilian element of a series of NATO-style civilian-military crisis-containment simulation exercises, such as ones involving scenarios in Afghanistan and West Africa. Then, in 2008, the establishment of the Crisis and Conflict Unit (CCC) inside the AFD’s Strategy Directorate signalled that the French government had made a significant – and lasting – shift to a new conflict-sensitive approach to the country’s ODA.
The word ‘lasting’ was stressed above because this was not France’s first tentative experience with a WGA. During the 1990s, the British ‘New Labour’ government instituted a new policy for dealing with the kinds of civil wars in West African countries (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea) that were spilling over into neighbouring countries. As part of this policy, a new ‘Conflict Pool’ was set up in 2001 to serve as a fund for conflict-prevention and peacebuilding projects around the world, with its budget being shared by the Department for International Development, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and the Ministry of Defence. This innovation supplied a new and creative international WGA model to other Western nations. Applying such a model to a French structured response to African conflicts was contemplated once by the development assistance section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the AFD, but the project was ultimately shortlived. This was due not only to the usual administrative turf battles, but also – and mostly – to a tradition in place since the beginning of the Fifth Republic of coordinating any whole-of-government policies at the very top of the state system – i.e. at the level of the presidency.
In the end, the crucial political event that led to the adoption of a formal, geographically centred WGA system in France was the fight against terrorism in the Sahel and, specifically, the country’s direct military intervention in the region in Operation Serval (January 2013 to July 2014) and Operation Barkhane (July 2014 to present). This integrated approach, or ‘approche intégrée’ in France’s bureaucratic terminology, marked the first time that France had ever dealt with a sub-regional African problem in such a way. It was both strategically and operationally top-down in that it was strictly and personally defined and controlled by the president with the assistance of various government sections on an ad hoc basis.