1. bookVolume 6 (2021): Issue 1 (December 2021)
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First Published
30 Sep 2016
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1 time per year
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Assessment as innovation: The case of the French administration in the nineteenth century

Published Online: 14 Dec 2022
Volume & Issue: Volume 6 (2021) - Issue 1 (December 2021)
Page range: 37 - 53
Journal Details
First Published
30 Sep 2016
Publication timeframe
1 time per year

At first glance, one might feel that administrative life and innovation are two contradictory realities: the former seems to comprise routine and rigidity, while the latter, whether used in its ordinary dictionary meaning,

In the Trésor de la langue française, Paris 1983, p. 259, the verb »innover« is defined as »[i]ntroduire du neuf dans quelque chose qui a un caractère bien établi« [»introducing something new into something which is well-established«].

or in that of the many definitions given over recent years such as in the »Oslo Manual« for example,

Oslo Manual 2018. Guidelines for Collecting, Reporting and Using Data on Innovation, Paris 2018, p. 20.

always consists in introducing, then disseminating something new within a pre-existing environment. But of course, the contradiction is only apparent superficially. While governmental administrations might never have been as flexible as the administration of businesses, as underlined by Robert K. Merton

Robert K. Merton: Bureaucratic Structure and Personality, in: Social Forces 18/4 (1940), pp. 560–568.

and Michel Crozier among many others,

Michel Crozier: Le phénomène bureaucratique, Paris 1963.

and while innovation is also admittedly more shackled in the administrative sphere of government than elsewhere – thus evolving in specific forms

Cécile Clergeau de Mascureau: Quelles entraves organisationnelles et institutionnelles à l’innovation dans les organisations bureaucratiques publiques?, in: Politiques et management public 13/2 (1995), pp. 141–171. See also: Bureaucraties publiques et innovation. Éléments d’une analyse économique, unpublished PhD thesis, Université de Nantes 1994.

– it nevertheless exists. And following Philippe Lefebvre, we may even say that it is prolific.

Philippe Lefebvre: Innovation et Administration: quelle histoire (xixe–xxe siècle)?, unpublished text, p. 4, HAL platform (8. 1. 2021).

The literature supports this view, as is best illustrated by the many works devoted to what is called administrative reform – the many projects and undertakings to overhaul the structure of governmental administration and so to make it more effective. These efforts stretch far into the past but have only truly taken shape during the twentieth century, before becoming identified in the 1990s with state reform.

Jean-Benoît Albertini: Réforme administrative et réforme de l’État en France. Thèmes et variations de l’esprit de réforme de 1815 à nos jours, Paris 2000. Two particularly useful studies: Philippe Bezes: Réinventer l’État. Les réformes de l’administration française (1962– 2008), Paris 2009; Florence Descamps: Le ministère des Finances, la réforme administrative et la modernisation de l’État (1914–1974), unpublished HDR thesis, EHESS 2014.

Further illustration is provided by the research in the modernization of bureaucrats’ working methods.

Bruno Delmas: Révolution industrielle et mutation administrative. L’innovation dans l’administration française au xixe siècle, in: Histoire, économie et société 4/2 (1985), pp. 205–232. See also Delphine Gardey: Écrire, calculer, classer. Comment une révolution de papier a transformé les sociétés contemporaines, Paris 2008.

This research is central to the literature on innovation, because modernization of working methods was initially limited to the technical sphere. This second line of scholarship, though more narrowly focused, has continuously generated new lines of enquiry, as currently shown by the emergence of stimulating ideas about how the digital revolution relates to administrative work.

The reader is referred, for example, to the works of Steve Jacob, who currently holds the chair in Administration publique à l’ère numérique at Université Laval.

Still, much clearly remains to be done before reaching the »general theory of [administrative] innovation« Guy Thuillier called for two decades ago.

Guy Thuillier: L’innovation, in : Guy Thuillier: Pour une histoire de la bureaucratie en France, vol. 2, Paris 2001, p. 98.

The need for this is particularly apparent for the nineteenth century, less well known in this respect than the following century. The present study is intended as a contribution to this long-term project. As suggested, once again, by Guy Thuillier,

Thuillier: L’innovation, pp. 91–98.

we focus on one case, namely assessments of French functionaries in the nineteenth century. This is a typical instance of innovation, that is, a novelty that was disseminated, and that thus, in a way, succeeded. The first assessment sheets appeared in the late eighteenth century, then gradually spread through most of the administrative apparatus – to the extent that by the end of the nineteenth century, periodically filling out assessment forms had become an eminently current, even commonplace activity for a considerable number of officials, most of whom, for that matter, were assessed in turn. Assessment presents two characteristics that make it particularly worthy of interest for historians. First, while its study tells us primarily about early developments in personnel management, it can also inform us about the far more general matter of how the French administration was built up at a time when nation-building and state development bestowed it with a certain number of characteristic features. Second, and surprisingly, assessments have rarely been analyzed as such. Admittedly, French historians have long known of these assessment sheets, yet have hitherto only used them as sources throwing light on the many facets of officials’ activities and lives. A mere handful works focus on these documents as their object.

Michaël Bourlet: L’utilisation du vocabulaire militaire administratif: l’exemple des dossiers individuels des officiers (1870–1914), unpublished paper given at the symposium held by the École militaire ›Dire et se dire militaire en Occident 1494–1870: les mots du militaire‹, 2011; Jean Le Bihan: Comment faire l’histoire de la compétence administrative? L’apport des feuilles signalétiques, unpublished paper given to the ›Bibliothèque de l’administrateur‹ seminar as part of the ANR ›Mobilisation des savoirs pour la réforme‹ research project, 2011; Jean-Pierre Royer: La notation des magistrats en France depuis 1850, in: Jean-Pierre Royer (ed.): Être juge demain, Lille 1983, pp. 229–244; Guy Thuillier: Une histoire de la notation administrative, in: La Revue administrative 159 (1974), pp. 228–236; Guy Thuillier: Pour une histoire de la notation administrative: la communication du dossier et l’article 65 de la loi du 22 avril 1905, in: La Revue administrative 167 (1975), pp. 454– 468.

Let us also state that we make no pretense to having exhaustively explored our subject, nor is it our intent to profess any definitive conclusions. This paper is a provisional statement of where our long-term research currently stands.

The reader is referred to two detailed studies we have recently published: Pierre Karila-Cohen / Jean Le Bihan: L’empire de la notation (France, xixe siècle). Première partie: l’essor d’une pratique, in: Genèses 113/4 (2018), pp. 11–38; Pierre Karila-Cohen / Jean Le Bihan: L’empire de la notation (France, xixe siècle). Deuxième partie: la fabrique des rôles, in: Genèses 115/2 (2019), pp. 75–100.

Its purpose is to trigger discussion and open avenues of inquiry about the decisive yet little-known innovation of assessing state officials in the nineteenth century. It is therefore an integral contribution to broader debates concerning the historical validity of certain sociological and philosophical models. Addressing how assessment was invented and became generalized necessarily leads to the question of the rationalization of the state as an organization, described by Max Weber as one of the great processes affecting late modern societies. Working both with and against Weber, our empirical research shows that, while the emergence and widespread adoption of assessment may indeed be seen in terms of rationalization, it may also display aspects that, from a purely bureaucratic point of view, are unexpected, stemming from the personality of the individual assessed and his or her place in the society of the time.

In this, we follow a similar the perspective to Jane Burbank: Supervising the Supervisors: Bureaucracy, Personality and Rule of Law in Kazan Province at the Start of the 20th Century, in: Acta Slavica Iaponica 38 (2017), pp. 1–21.

Similarly, analyzing how assessment was implemented in context leads us to both embrace and reject Foucauldian viewpoints on the assembling of a surveillance society in the nineteenth century: assessment was in part a disciplinary undertaking, but it was not only that, and each individual, both assessed and assessor, played a more complex role; or, to put it better, each performed a script that was not written in advance and, as a result, each helped write. In any case, this is not a theoretical position, but the result of empirical research of documentation, which, though excessive in some respects, leaves unexplained many of the inner workings of assessment as an administrative innovation.

First, this paper (1) examines the general context in which this innovation appeared; (2) it then goes over the scope and content of the practice of assessment during the nineteenth century; (3) finally, it analyzes, as far as possible, its objectives and effects. A long nineteenth century will be considered here, running from the Consulate (1799–1804), a decisive moment in the formation of the modern state in France, to the eve of the First World War, when the practice of assessment had becme generalized across all sectors of the state.

Innovation in context

The regular appraisal of public servants, as we will define and describe it in the following sections, occurred in a context of fundamental political change and development of the French state which needs explaining. While the relationship between this context and the major innovation of assessment cannot be described in purely mechanical terms, the latter needs to be at least partly viewed as a response to a series of overall changes in the political order, as well as in the structures of the state and its hold on society.

The first point to make about the context is the pronounced political instability of nineteenth-century France. Before the Revolution »returned to port«,

François Furet: La Révolution française, vol. 2 : Terminer la Révolution. De Louis xviii à Jules Ferry (1814–1880), Paris 1988, p. 467.

in François Furet’s well-known expression, and before the institutional framework was stabilized with the definitive establishment of the Republic in the late 1870s, France went through nine political regimes, brought about by revolutions (1830, 1848), coups d’état (18 brumaire of Year VIII, 2 December 1851), or military defeats (1814, 1815, and 1870): the Consulate (1799–1804), the First Empire (1804–1815), the First Restoration (1814–1815), the Hundred Days (March–June 1815), the Second Restoration (1815–1830), the July Monarchy (1830–1848), the Second Republic (1848–1852), the Second Empire (1852–1870), and the Third Republic, proclaimed on 4 September 1870 but only truly consolidated in 1879. In the meantime, the Paris Commune and its ruthless repression (March–May 1871), among other things, had once again highlighted both the depth of French political divisions and the ungovernability of its population. Yet following De Tocqueville’s analyses, this political and institutional instability is customarily said to have been in some way counterbalanced by the solidity of France’s administrative constitution, that is, the persistence of structures put in place during the Revolution (the division of the territory into departments) and especially under the Consulate.

See: Alexis De Tocqueville: The State of Society in France Before the Revolution of 1789. And the Causes which led to that event, translated by Henry Reeve, London 31888, p. 173: »[...] since 1789, the administrative constitution has ever remained standing amidst the ruins of her political constitutions [...]: for, if at each revolution the administration was decapitated, its trunk still remained unmutilated and alive«.

It is true that the administrative reorganization undertaken from Year VIII onwards lasted so long into the 19th century that certain structures or functions introduced at the time still exist today, from the Banque de France to the Cour des Comptes, from police commissioners to prefects and sub-prefects. The fact that prefectural officials continued to exist throughout the political vicissitudes of the century is a perfect illustration of how solid this administrative constitution was: though scorned by opponents of all the century’s regimes, the prefectural function was systematically maintained by all those who finally obtained power.

Although the general structures of state remained remarkably stable through revolutions and regime changes, they nevertheless underwent change over the course of the century, even major realignments, bringing us back to the context of these changes. The first of these developments was systemic, relating to the trend towards an increasing number of ministries,

Pierre Rosanvallon: L’État en France de 1789 à nos jours, Paris 1993, pp. 293–300.

hence of authorities in charge of managing officials and employees, who, one after the other, were subjected to assessment. The Restoration had six ministries: the July Monarchy 8, the Third Republic 10 in around 1890. There were seventeen in 1934. This increase was largely due to the successive fragmentation of the ministry that initially had the broadest and most varied remit: the Ministry of the Interior. In the early decades of the century, this heterogeneous structure oversaw every aspect of the internal life of the state, but its administrative directorates successively gained in importance, breaking away to become ministries in their own right: such was the case for the Ministry of Commerce, Public Works, and Agriculture, which was gradually created in the 1830s. The growth of this ministry as a distinct entity from the Ministry of the Interior, and further specialization in each of its domains, led to another split in the early 1880s, with the creation of the Ministry of Agriculture. At the same time, other Ministry of the Interior departments continued to break away from the parent structure, more or less permanently, such as the Poste et Télégraphes, which was a full ministry from 1879 to 1889. The expansion in areas of state intervention, with the setting up of the welfare state as of the late 1880s onwards, further increased ministries’ specialization and their number. One example is the creation of a Ministry of Labor in 1906 to implement and enforce the new legislation on industrial relations.

The increasing number of ministries reflected the even more massive growth in the work of the state. As a result, of both centralization, whereby all business was channeled up to the ministries, and the progressive expansion of the areas of state intervention, ranging from the most traditional and regalian to economic and social issues, the workload increased exponentially; and the volume of correspondence between Paris, the prefectures, subprefectures, and communes leaped skywards. It is thus not surprising that there was a significant increase in the number of people working for the state in nineteenth-century France. It is very difficult to quantify this precisely, however: from the outset, the debate about the number of officials was biased to serve political ends, leading to battles, sometimes over fanciful figures.

Emilien Ruiz: Trop de fonctionnaires? Histoire d’une obsession française (xixe–xxie siècle), Paris 2021; as well as: Quantifier une abstraction? L’histoire du ›nombre de fonctionnaires‹ en France, in: Genèses 99/2 (2015), pp. 131–148.

The definition of the term official (fonctionnaire) was not even stable in the 19th century, making it difficult to count a phenomenon for which there was no simple common meaning. We can therefore only work with approximations, which suggest that the number of state officials (excluding military personnel) probably doubled over the course of the long nineteenth century, from around 250,000 to around 500,000. This global figure has been confirmed at the level of individual territories.

Jean-Paul Jourdan: Le personnel de l’administration dans le Sud-Ouest aquitain de la fin de l’Ancien Régime aux années 1880, unpublished ›thèse d’État‹, Université Paris-IV 2000, chap. II.

It has also been confirmed by specialized studies into specific professions, concerning, for example, the police forces, which by the beginning of the twentieth century were significantly more present in everyday French life than they had been at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Among many works, see: Jean-Noël Luc (ed.): Gendarmerie, État et société au xixe siècle, Paris 2002; and Quentin Deluermoz: Policiers dans la ville. La construction d’un ordre public à Paris 1854–1914, Paris 2012.

The same applies to postmen,

Sébastien Richez: Postes et postiers en Normandie. Témoins des transformations nationales, 1830–1914, Paris 2009, p. 226.


Antoine Prost: L’enseignement en France, 1800–1967, Paris 1968, pp. 141, 378f.

and many other professions.

Thus in France, as elsewhere in Europe, only no doubt more so in a society in need of rebuilding in the wake of the Revolution, the nineteenth century saw a very significant expansion in the state’s structures, areas of intervention, and number of agents, who interacted more frequently with the population, which was likewise on the increase: by the eve of the First World War there were 40 million inhabitants in France, up from 30 million in around 1800. Due to the country’s uneven path towards democratization, this century also saw a state ideology of public service slowly take hold,

On this point, see the special issue, Le service public, l’économie, la République, in Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine 52/3 (2005).

significantly influencing the behavior expected of state agents. All these phenomena can be understood as a dynamic process we call statization, encapsulating the concrete expansion of the presence of the state in nineteenth-century societies, together with populations gradually accommodating, then accepting, this abstract body and the agents embodying it.

On this point, see the overview by Lutz Raphael: Recht und Ordnung. Herrschaft durch Verwaltung im 19. Jahrhundert, Frankfurt am Main 2000.

In this sense, assessing state employees was both a technical response to state control and a tool making this control possible.

Especially as this generalized growth in needs, structures, and agents was not immediately accompanied by any clear recruitment or career development rules; in certain branches of the administration, it took a long time for the word career to acquire any real meaning. Thus, for quite some time, those serving the state found themselves on shifting sands, or this at least was how they sometimes viewed it, especially since their fragile status was periodically compounded by the fear of purges, a threat that hovered hauntingly over the French administration through the end of the 19th century. Hence, the strategies some civil servants used to consolidate their position, as convincingly described by Ralph Kingston in the case of ministry employees: defending seniority, seeking honorability, and so on.

Ralph Kingston: Bureaucrats and bourgeois society: office politics and individual credit in France, 1789–1848, New York 2012.

As for the institutions, this state of affairs confronted them with the formidable matter of identifying administrative skills, insofar as initial training and recruitment by competitive examination remained rare, on the whole, until the 1870s and 1880s. This situation gradually evolved, of course, following different timeframes depending on hierarchical status and administrative sector. But it needs to be borne in mind that, in terms of careers in state administration, the nineteenth century was a very particular period, marked by a certain disarray in rules and practices, at a time when, in virtually all fields, government employees were establishing new relationships with the surrounding society.We thus need to observe what assessment was and examine the chronology in which it was put in place before exploring its objectives and effects.

The phenomenon of assessment

Let us start by defining assessment. Unfortunately, nineteenth-century ministry sources do not provide any definition, not an insignificant fact. For want of a better one, we shall start with the definition put forward by the jurist François Iché in the late 1930s. Assessment, he wrote, seeks to appreciate the professional value of the functionary, is guided by a preestablished matrix of criteria, and is periodical.

François Iché: Le droit et le calepin de notes. Les limites du pouvoir discrétionnaire dans le pouvoir de noter, Hanoï 1938, pp. 182–186.

We shall simply adapt this definition to the realities of the nineteenth century, speaking of value period, rather than professional value, and of repetition rather than periodicity, because not all branches of the administration systematically applied strict periodicity prior to 1914. It is true that the practices covered by this definition are fairly diverse, particularly the nature and precision of the assessment criteria and the frequency of assessment itself. Even the terminology used to designate assessments, as thus defined, varied greatly, complicating our inventory work: for example, assessment documents were named notes signalétiques in the ›Ponts et Chaussées‹ [the state service in charge of building and maintaining roads, waterways, and railways], signalements moraux in the ›Douanes‹ [the customs service], bulletins moraux et politiques for police commissioners, notices individuelles for magistrates, and so on and so forth. Additionally, these names sometimes changed over the course of the century. Nevertheless, their content was very similar from one document to another, and always included a certain number of points intended to appraise the functionary and his work at intervals of varying regularity. Armed with this flexible yet effective definition allowing us to delimit solely those forms of assessment we are interested in here – thus ruling out, for example, ad hoc inspections of a particular government department – we embarked on the lengthy task of reading the existing literature and analyzing a large number of archive boxes. The literature enabled us to identify the moment when this practice emerged in a number of professions and to gather several precise examples of the content of these assessment documents. As for the archival work, it consisted in going through the career files of functionaries working in many different branches of the state to observe empirically the emergence of assessment practices together with any changes in the content of the forms used.

For a more detailed presentation of our survey methodology, see Pierre Karila-Cohen / Jean Le Bihan, L’empire de la notation (France, xixe siècle). Première partie, pp. 14–18.

The results of this investigation can be presented in two broad areas: the expansion in the phenomenon of assessment, on the one hand, and the content of assessment forms on the other.

Spectacular expansion

In the light of the sources we have examined, the continuous expansion of assessment may be broken down into three periods.

The first ran from the 1790s to the 1830s. This saw a still-limited number of categories of functionaries being brought under the remit of assessment at this early stage. First among these were customs personnel, who, as Jean Clinquart has shown, were subject to periodic reports as of the revolutionary period.

Jean Clinquart: L’administration des douanes en France sous la Révolution, Neuilly-sur-Seine 1978, p. 178.

No doubt these reports were fairly summary in nature: the model appended to the circular of 24 April 1812 does not even contain a set of assessment criteria,

Lois et règlements des douanes françaises, vol. 7, Lille 1819, p. 154.

which, strictly speaking, means it falls outside our study. But examination of the archives proves that a certain number of report forms used as of the 1790s and 1800s used two distinct sections for assessing the competence of customs officials,

See, for example, the archives départementales [AD] of the Côtesd’Armor 5 P 100, Personnel des Douanes, »Tableau des préposés composant le contrôle de Paimpol«, 1 vendémiaire Year XIII.

enabling us to assert that customs personnel were indeed assessed as of this period. Although this is exceptionally early, it may be readily explained if we remember that this branch traces its history back to the Ferme Générale [general tax form], which was bureaucratized at an extremely early stage because of the number of people it employed. Other categories followed. In 1811 the first form appeared for sub-prefects, secretaries general, and prefectural councilors.

Pierre Karila-Cohen: Monsieur le Préfet. Incarner l’État dans la France du xixe siècle, Ceyzérieu 2021, pp. 44–52.

This time there is a proper matrix of assessment criteria of over fifteen separate points. Although this form was not rolled out widely over the following years, it strongly shaped the content of those used as of the 1830s, and, in retrospect, was the matrix for the assessment sheets used for prefectural officials through to the Second Empire. The importance of their office, combined with their number, explains why the central state also started assessing police commissioners at an early stage. It is likely that the first report cards about them date from 1817,

John R. Merriman: Les commissaires de police de la Restauration: révocation et professionnalisation, in: Dominique Kalifa / Pierre Karila-Cohen (eds.): Le commissaire de police au xixe siècle, Paris 2008, pp. 103–121 (p. 106 for the reference to the circular of 19. 11. 1817 requesting »information on the pot lice every six months«).

which is not surprising given the Bourbon Restoration’s role in professionalizing police careers. Let us finally note that in 1828 it was decided to make assessment obligatory for personnel administering public forests.

Circular of 14. 11. 1828, quoted in: Jacques-Joseph Baudrillart: Recueil chronologique des réglemens sur les forêts, chasses et pêches […], vol. 4, Paris 1829, pp. 30f.

A second period stands out distinctly: 1840 to 1860. This twenty-year period clearly saw a decisive expansion in the practice of assessment within the French administration, judging by the number of categories for which it was imposed one after the other. The most emblematic reform during these years of upheaval, and the best known, is certainly that decided by the minister of justice, Eugène Rouher, in 1850.

Royer: La notation; Jean-Claude Farcy: Les sources judiciaires de l’époque contemporaine, xixe–xxe siècles, Rosny-sous-Bois 2007, pp. 97–100.

It provided for establishing individual records, theoretically yearly, for nearly all working magistrates. The circulars of 15 and 18 May 1850 provide a detailed account of the reasons behind this reform, and how to go about implementing it. Such explaining was unhabitual, and no doubt reveals the ministry’s desire to avoid upsetting this corps, who jealously protected their prerogatives and traditions, and to get them to cooperate in a task which, it was admitted, was going to be »considerable« and »arduous«, in Rouher’s words, at least to begin with.

Circulars of 15. 5. 1850 and 18. 5. 1850, quoted in: Recueil officiel des instructions et circulaires du ministère de la Justice, vol. 2 : De 1841 à 1862, Paris 1880, pp. 132–142.

Assessment was then rolled out for many other categories of officials. Military officers were included at the turn of the 1850s.

Bourlet: L’utilisation du vocabulaire militaire.

As for high school teachers, Manon Le Guennec is no doubt right in suggesting that it was in the mid-1840s that an assessment form appeared for use by inspectors general of public instruction.

Manon Le Guennec: Être professeur sous la Troisième République. Les enseignants du lycée de Rennes entre 1870 et 1914. Étude prosopographique, unpublished PhD thesis, École nationale des chartes 2016, pp. 148f.

Broadly, the same chronology applied to primary school inspectors

Search conducted in Archives nationales (Paris) [AN], sub-series F17.

and schoolmasters, whose inspection report acquired what we have described as the specific characteristics of assessment between 1835 and 1862.

Jean Ferrier: Les inspecteurs des écoles primaires 1835–1995, Paris 1997, pp. 513–516.

Staff working at the Contributions directes [direct taxation offices] started to be assessed as of the early 1840s,

Pierre Mickeler: Les agents des régies financières au xixe siècle, unpublished PhD thesis, Université Paris-XII 1994, p. 237.

tax collectors as of 1844,

Circular of 28. 06. 1844, quoted in: Mémorial des percepteurs 21 (1844), p. 233.

managerial staff working for the Ponts et Chaussées and the Mines [the state service in charge of mining resources] – and engineers, conducteurs [middle-ranking agents, below engineers but above laborers], and gardes-mines [the equivalent of conducteurs] – as of 1856,

Circulars of 3. 5. 1856 and 25. 11. 1856, quoted in: Recueil de lois, ordonnances, décrets, réglements et circulaires concernant les différents services du ministère des travaux publics, Paris 1902, pp. 22f., 94–96.

and so on. It is no exaggeration to speak of a decisive expansion in assessment over the course of these twenty years, which truly were a pivotal phase.

During the third and final period, starting in around 1860, assessment spread even further. It now included intermediary and upper-ranking state bureaucrats who had not been part of the great wave of 1840–1860. It arguably reached managerial staff working for the Postes, who were assessed from at least 1868.

Search conducted in AN, sub-series F90.

It surely encompassed diplomatic staff, apart from heads of mission, whose files only include assessment sheets as of 1880.

Information provided by Isabelle Dasque.

It applied equally to labor inspectors, as a matter of course, one might say, since the corps was only created in 1874, de jure for divisional inspectors and de facto for departmental inspectors. The files examined suggest assessment was initially very irregular in this administration, but soon became methodical, in 1882 for divisional officers, and ten years later for their subordinates, when they all became state officials.

See, for example, AN, F12, 4773/B Personnel des inspecteurs du travail. Files on Laurent Albert Marochetti and Théodore Nadeau.

The years 1860–1914 also saw the expansion of assessment to include subaltern administrative staff. This was admittedly not a wholly new phenomenon, but it increased spectacularly, successively affecting all or some ministry employees,

Search conducted in AN, sub-series F1bI and information provided by Igor Moullier.


Search conducted in AN, sub-series F90.


Information provided by Arnaud-Dominique Houte.

and even museum wardens.

Odile Join-Lambert / Yves Lochard: Construire le mérite dans la fonction publique d’État. L’exemple de la Culture (1880–1980), in: Sociologie du travail 52/2 (2010), pp. 151–171, at p. 157.

Lastly, assessment started to make its way into the ranks of the local administration. This change was partly driven by the state, which, as of the 1870s and 1880s, sought to monitor chief officials working for the octroi [local taxation offices],

Aimé Trescaze: Dictionnaire général des contributions indirectes, Poitiers 1884, p. 1578.

– along with agents voyers of higher rank [agents working for departmental services in charge of local roadways], that is, those in charge of a district or a department, and some cantonal highways agents.

Search conducted in AD Ille-et-Vilaine, sub-series 3O.

Yet municipalities also took part in this movement, introducing assessment for their particularly numerous octroi personnel.

Documents et informations, in : Revue municipale. Recueil d’études sur les questions édilitaires, 9. 9. 1899, pp. 1558–1560; search conducted in Archives municipales [AM] Rennes, series K.

Admittedly this expansion was not limitless. A certain number of professions escaped assessment throughout the century, starting with senior bureaucrats whose career files hardly ever contain any assessment sheets.

Information about councilors of state provided by Chloé Gaboriaux; search conducted in sub-series F17 of the AN for inspectors general of public instruction.

At the other end of the scale, certain subaltern staff, such as road menders

Search conducted in AD Ille-et-Vilaine, sub-series 1S.

or blue-collar workers in schools, were not assessed either.

Search conducted in AN, sub-series F17.

Nor were most of those employed in the départements and communes, including, in this case, mid-ranking staff, such as heads of department in prefectures

Jean Le Bihan: Au service de l’État. Les fonctionnaires intermédiaires au xixe siècle, Rennes 2008, p. 268.

and large city halls.

Search conducted in AM Rennes, series K, and information provided by Bruno Dumons.

This was no doubt because there was very limited scope for promotion, exclusively within the locality, obviating the need to use an especially formal procedure. Lastly, let us add the case of the parish clergy who, as is known, were folded into the embrace of the fonction publique under the Concordat regime.

Information provided by Samuel Gicquel.

We should doubtless not underestimate these limits; but, as may be seen, they were not on the same scale as the transformation of which we are speaking. For the period under study as a whole, this transformation was nothing less than spectacular.

»These report notes speak of everything«

Paul Goguet: Feuilles mortes, in: Le xixe siècle, 23. 11. 1905.

Let us now look at the content of these assessments, as evidenced in the countless assessment sheets held in the archives. Two elements strike the observer immediately: first, the sheer breadth of information requested about the individual being assessed, second, the fact that the sections to be filled in are largely identical from one branch to the other, be it for a forest warden, subprefect, magistrate, or rural postman.

The individual report that procurators general and chief justices had to fill out about magistrates of all orders provides, in its updated and expanded 1871 version, is an excellent overview of all the questions asked, with few exceptions, in all the assessment sheets of the various types of functionary at the turn of the century. It is exceptionally long, running to sixty-three items, excluding those relating to surname and first name, conferring it with sufficiently broad scope to cover all the aspects raised in other branches, for most of which the report sheets tended to be more succinct. Many of the questions about magistrates related to their attributes, ranging from straightforward identification of individuals to their main personality traits as well as their social position. There are fifteen questions about their ancestry, marriage, »social position and fortune«, health, character, and private behavior. The information elicited clearly places this portrait of magistrates within the world of notables typical of a Balzac novel, as illustrated, inter alia, by questions on »the state or profession of the father«, the »name and profession of the father-in-law«, and the »social position or fortune resulting from marriage«. A second set of questions relates to more strictly professional aspects, if we restrict for the moment the adjective’s meaning to its current limited sense. It thus lists the diplomas and »titles« obtained by the individual being assessed, his »instruction« in various domains, any distinctions and blames accrued, his attitude to work – »exactness, zeal«, »activity« – and, lastly, his skills, ranging from his »sagacity« and »judgement« to his capacities in various situations in which he performs his job. Lastly, a third type of question – sixteen in all – relates to the magistrate’s prior, present, and future career: his career path prior to holding his current post, any interruptions in service, and, lastly, his desires for his future career. The eminently practical dimension of these assessment documents, relating to personnel management by the ministry, is clearly apparent here, going into such details, in certain reports, as the number of years to be taken into account in calculating retirement pensions. The person, job, and career thus form the general framework, for magistrates and all servants of state, structuring the individual reports and assorted documents which proliferated in France during the nineteenth century.

Studying the items used in a dozen other administrative professions, differing both in terms of their field of activity and hierarchical position, corroborates that this tripartite structure of person/job/career applied everywhere, though with a few changes in emphasis at times. Looking simply at the words used reveals very few differences from one document to another. The same items, formulated in the same way, are found nearly everywhere – from character, to »zeal«, to »health«, to »relations with superiors/authorities and the public«, to »style«, and »entitlement to promotion«. Still, this does not preclude certain dissimilarities. Some of these are quantitative. Thus, while the number of items tends to hover around thirty or so, this ranges from seven for diplomatic personnel to sixty-three, as we have seen, for magistrates. Such discrepancies may relate to only one part of the form. The professional section in the assessment sheet used for high school teachers is very similar to that for magistrates, except that the thing under appraisal is what happens in class, rather than in court. Yet many of the questions about the individual person have been expunged: the traditional questions about »health«, »character«, and »private behavior« are still present, but there is no trace of the questions about marriage, number of children, social position, and so on. No doubt this results from the particular means of assessing teachers, largely during specific inspections and not as an ongoing process. However, we should not read too much into discrepancies in the number of questions: first, because differences in the number of sections arise partly from certain of these assessment sheets amalgamating items listed separately in others; second, because the final observations in the reports, along with many other documents in the career file, always provide scope for going into greater detail about a given aspect of the assessment, particularly for matters unrelated or only partly related to the job. In fact, the only real oddity worth noting is the extreme brevity of the questionnaire for diplomatic personnel, in comparison to all other professions, no doubt due to this corps’ resistance to any technical or formal appraisal: it is well known how fiercely it opposed competitive recruitment processes during the Third Republic.

Isabelle Dasque: Les diplomates de la République (1871–1914), Paris 2020, pp. 308–320.

More significant, however, are the presence of items specific to each administrative profession. The documents are often precise about the specific skills and tasks of each job. Assessors are thus asked to appraise the capacity of subagents working in the Postes to correctly use apparatus with dials; equipment with mirrors; Morse, Hugues, and Meyer telegraphs; and so on. Enquiries are made into the skills of forest wardens in matters relating to »sowing and planting«, »training coppices«, »timber marking«, and so on. For labor inspectors, the assessments sought to ascertain the surface area of the section covered, the number of communes therein, the number of establishments to be inspected, the number of visits actually carried out, and whether they kept their archives and documents correctly. As for army officers, the assessments sought to establish their »aptitudes« for »campaigning«, for »maneuvering in mountainous country«, and »on horseback«, as well as the job held at the time of the assessment. However, one would search in vain for any such precise questions on the tasks carried out by agents voyers or sub-inspectors in the Enregistrement [one of the various tax sub-administrations]: here, all that counted was their attitude to work – their »zeal« and »activity« – on which there was a whole battery of questions, as if discipline were of greater import here than any specific skills.

The mirror held up to each profession thus shows slight variations, together at times with an increase in the number of sections as the century progressed. Nevertheless, the overall image, applicable to all branches, of the ›good functionary‹ would appear to have been established at a very early stage, as embodied in the shared conceptions in these assessment documents. They are a practical echo of the reflections of Vivien in his »Études administratives«, the three first editions of which (1845, 1852, and 1859) coincided exactly with the great expansion in assessment. Although this practitioner and theoretician of the state does not directly tackle the question of assessment in this fundamental work, the way it is composed highlights the same points as those emphasized in the existing or subsequent assessment documents. In the chapters about »Functionaries’ duties to the state« and »Functionaries’ duties to the public, to each other, and in their private life«, the councilor of state devotes paragraphs to probity, appropriate behavior, assiduity, zeal, and obedience. These pages sketch out and above all construct the same image of functionaries as that which emerges from the assessment documents: that of an individual whose qualities or defects transcend the limits of the private and professional. We could summarize this by describing the conception as holistic: each part – here, the detail of the individual’s attributes and skills – is associated with the person, which is what is really under appraisal. Such a conception precludes enquiring solely into professional aptitude, which, though part of the final portrait, is in no way the full picture. Above and beyond the definition of what a functionary is, this conception is profoundly anchored in its century – the century when, in succession, physiognomy, phrenology, and criminology related the moral to the physical, and saw in a person’s features, the form of their skull, or details of their face the signs of their morality and aptitudes. It is also the century when novelists, first the realists, then the naturalists, carefully described the slightest details of their characters’ appearance and past experiences to build up a complete psychological portrait backed up by every perceptible detail.

Let us add that, apart from the Postes, assessment was not quantitative, as far as we know, before the 1900s. It was exclusively a matter of words. Attempts to introduce quantitative assessment were indeed made in the early nineteenth century, for example, in prefectural administration,

Karila-Cohen: Monsieur le Préfet, pp. 40–42.

but they were short lived. Generally, language must have seemed a superior order to numbers, deemed too mechanical for reaching an overall appraisal of a functionary’s worth. In this respect, the assessment of officials was part of the nineteenth-century’s enthusiasm for statistics and predilection for various kinds of survey, seeking to shed light on all aspects of the political and social realms,

See Harald Westergaard: Contributions to the History of Statistics, The Hague 1932, who sees the mid-nineteenth century as an »era of enthusiasm for statistics«; or more recently, among many other works, Oz Frankel: States of Inquiry. Social Investigations and Print Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain and the United States, Baltimore 2007.

though it was not affected until a very late stage by the trend over the century towards quantifying many of these descriptions: what was being assessed was a matter of subjective, even nuanced apprehension, which figures cannot communicate, at least not without supplementary explanation. So it was a matter of choosing one’s words and knowing how to vary them. The examples given by Pierre Mickeler of assessment sheets for officials working in one of the tax sub-administrations in the nineteenth century are revealing in this regard. The answers to the question on the »administrative intelligence« of these agents vary, depending upon the date (between 1868 in 1899) and the individual assessed, being judged, to give some examples, as »ordinary«, »slow«, »cultivated«, »developed«, »fairly pronounced«, »open«, »middling«, »keen«, »weakened by alcoholic excess«, or »nebulous«, without forgetting longer formulations such as »understands slowly«, or »serious and penetrating mind, perhaps a little too subtle«. As may be seen, the direct style of these assessments is reminiscent of the art of the epigram: whether in praise or criticism, the word or formula is pithy. If, however, we place all the documents about a given individual end-to-end, we are transported to a different literary genre. These apparently dull administrative lives are now endowed with some of the charm of a novel, what with the passage of time, dashed ambitions, valiant successes, and private joys and misfortunes running through one report to the next. They represent a magnificent resource for a history of administrative emotions.

So it is clear that the phenomenon of assessment not only expanded, and became general within the institution, but also introduced a fundamental change in how the administration operated. It is thus permissible to define it as an innovation in its own right and to conceive of it in such light.

A fundamental innovation

Analyzing assessment as an innovative phenomenon involves addressing how it was put in place, the factors causing it to become commonplace, and the way in which those involved – assessor and assessed – appropriated this practice. In a way, it consists of asking how and why assessment became necessary in nineteenth-century public administration, or at least why it was regarded as such.

The obscure paths of change

It should first be noted that there was never any plan to generalize assessment across the French administration as a whole. The idea of extending it across the entire function publique arose during the Belle Époque, when the specific question of whether to communicate assessment reports to the person concerned was first raised.

Thuillier: Pour une histoire de la notation, pp. 454–468.

As we have seen, however, assessment was already well established by this time and becoming routine in most sectors of the administration. In any case, it would seem there was little in the way of circulation of assessment norms and practices between ministerial departments. We have found but a single instance of such circulation, which brings us back to the figure of Rouher, mentioned earlier. The circulars of May 1850 introducing assessment for the magistracy date from the period when he was minister for justice, while those instigating it for engineers, conducteurs, and secondary employees in the Ponts et Chaussées in 1856 follows shortly upon his being appointed minister of public works. Since, additionally, the two forms are very similar, we may suppose that having tested assessment with positive results at the ministry of justice, it was then deliberately carried over to the ministry for public works, if not by Eugène Rouher, then at least by a member of his entourage following in his footsteps.

Apart from this case, any (very incomplete) efforts to align assessment procedures seemingly occurred at the reduced scale of the ministerial department, no doubt partly because the services specifically devoted to personnel were small. It is thus certainly no coincidence that assessment was introduced in the Mines administration only a few months after having been introduced in the Ponts. While high-ranking civil servants certainly played a key role in driving dissemination, and while they thereby figure among the »innovative functionaries« discussed by Jacques Chevallier,

Jacques Chevallier: Science administrative, Paris 1994, p. 571.

various indications suggest that innovation did not always flow from the top down. For instance, it was only after having acknowledged that »some conservators« had had the good idea of »drawing up special formulas« about the brigadiers and wardens placed under their authority, that the director-general of the forestry administration decided in 1842 to officialize this measure across all of France.

Circular of 8. 10. 1842, quoted in: Recueil chronologique des règlemens sur les forêts, la chasse et la pêche […], vol. 6, Paris 1840, p. 622.

Equally, Rouher, in making the case for assessment in his foundational circulars of May 1850, deemed it worth invoking the useful precedent of the assessment of colonial magistrates, a practice attested elsewhere,

See for example, AN BB6 II 5 – file on André François. Report dated 30. 11. 1845.

due to which »magistrates in the Indies [… are], in a way, better known than magistrates in the Paris jurisdiction,« as he observed.

Circular of 15. 5. 1850, p. 134.

In both cases, the innovation was clearly first tested in the field, sometimes at the initiative of territorial administrators, before the central administration, judging it to have been a success, then decided to ratify and generalize it. Lastly, once a certain stage was reached, the dissemination process was strongly facilitated by the fact that ministerial services could draw on documentary and technical resources, together with experience in assessment. The introduction of assessment for faculty teachers in 1855 shows this in its own way:

Circular of 21. 7. 1855, quoted in: Circulaires et instructions officielles relatives à l’instruction publique, vol. 4, Paris 1850, pp. 752f.

the ministry simply reused the form labeled »confidential information« it had started using some time previously to assess secondary school personnel.

Thus, the primary realm where assessment was disseminated was within ministries. No doubt they were not totally hermetic: first, because men moved from one ministry to another and could thus carry innovation with them, as we may suppose happened in the case of Rouher and his entourage; second, because assessment forms were sometimes collated and published, once again facilitating the circulation of knowledge about, if not the actual practice of, assessment.

For example, A. Beaunis: Répertoire des modèles de l’administration des contributions indirectes avec l’analyse des instructions qui s’y rapportent, Poitiers 1895.

But in all likelihood such circulation only played a secondary role in the dissemination processes under discussion: at most it accelerated them. We thus need to look to other factors to explain why assessment emerged and spread across all ministries, becoming a universal practice. We hold that the roots of this lie in the common concern in different administrations with effectively managing and monitoring their personnel, even though there was no explicit pooling of practices.

Managing and monitoring men

The exceptional fortune of assessment throughout the nineteenth century was based on an emergent administrative ideology. A prime place to track this is the thirty or so ministerial circulars directly about assessment that we have identified. Admittedly, many are highly technical and so unfortunately not at all forthcoming. Others have more to say, explaining the reasons for acting in such manner. In these cases, it is always the administration’s need to know its personnel that is put forward as an argument. In 1833, the conservators of forests were informed that assessments »help determine the Administration’s opinion on all its agents«.

Circular of 26. 12. 1833, quoted in: Baudrillart: Recueil chronologique, p. 672.

This undertaking nevertheless pursued more precise objectives explained in various ways. Chief among these was deciding promotions based on criteria that were, or were deemed to be, reliable. This is confirmed in the regulations. In 1812 the director-general of the Douanes stated he had used the »reports« sent to him as the »rule for promotions« of customs officers.

Circular of 20. 11. 1812, quoted in: Lois et règlements, vol. 7, p. 218.

Equally, in 1841, the minister of the interior noted that the »report cards« on police commissioners were essential to »be able to conduct transfers and correctly appreciate the consequences«.

Ille-et-Vilaine AD 4 M 1 – Commissaires de police: instructions…, an ix-1845. Circular of 24. 12. 1841.

The wish to organize all promotions as carefully as possible was grounded in two reasons. The first was a moral reason, as it were: It was a matter of treating functionaries fairly, as evidenced for example in an 1813 circular for the Douanes, which presents fair assessment as the surest way of ridding the administration of »indiscreet requests« seeking to unduly favor such and such an officer.

Circular of 17. 10. 1813, quoted in: Lois et règlements, vol. 7, p. 329.

However, the main reason is once again the effectiveness of public action for, first and foremost, assessment sought to identify capable and incapable agents, to enable the former’s competence to benefit the administrative organization to the greatest extent, while limiting the harm done by the latter’s incompetence as far as possible. This is evidenced by questions in certain forms directly about changes of job: »does he deserve promotion?«, »desired job?«, »job to which he is best suited?«, and so on. As noted earlier, the stakes were particularly important given that many administrative professions continued to be loosely structured. In prefectural administration, for example, the fact that there was no initial training, entry exam, or rules for promotion made it all the more essential to scrutinize individuals’ daily practice to discern their capacities and ascertain whether they performed their tasks correctly.

Karila-Cohen: Monsieur le Préfet, pp. 151–202.

This formalization of skills within hierarchies being progressively put in place illustrates Max Weber’s vast portrait of the emergence and consolidation of bureaucracies in Europe of the period. Assessment was undeniably a discreet yet important tool in this »bureaucratization of the bureaucracy«, to use Waltraud Heindl’s excellent phrase.

Waltraud Heindl: Gehorsame Rebellen. Bürokratie und Beamte in Österreich. Band I: 1780–1848, Wien 22013 [1990], pp. 40–54.

Care must be taken, however, not to adopt too narrowly Weberian a view. We need to retain our capacity to apprehend in context any unexpected elements in a particular movement of administrative professionalization, bearing in mind the specific representations of the societies under observation. To return to the example of the prefectural corps, the assessment sheets used covered skills that could be described as techniques – such as administrative knowledge, character, or authority – but also sought to ascertain the relational capacities of sub-prefects, secretaries general, and prefectural councilors, through items about »running the household and giving receptions«, actions by their spouse, the position and consideration they enjoyed within their jurisdiction, and so on. Being capable of holding balls to help bind together the society of notables irrespective of the latter’s political disputes was clearly one of the skills expected of prefects and sub-prefects, a matter scrupulously detailed in the assessment sheets of the latter. Yet the overall pattern of transfers and promotions to enhance rationalization, typical of a bureaucratization process, nevertheless holds.

In addition to the goal of making the management of administrative personnel more effective, we need to add the wish of successive regimes to ensure their functionaries’ obedience. Our interpretation here needs to tilt towards Michel Foucault’s analyses concerning matters of discipline. In 1850, the great circular introducing assessment in the ranks of the magistracy shows, for instance, the totalizing, virtually absolutist ambition of this undertaking, which seems to be yet another expression of some panoptic utopia.

Michel Foucault: Surveiller et punir. Naissance de la prison, Paris 1975.

It opens as follows: »Nothing is more indispensable for a minister of justice than being fully cognizant of the various titles, services, and aptitudes of all the magistrates at whose head he is placed«.

Circular of 15. 5. 1850, p. 132.

It goes on to call for across-the-board surveillance of subordinates by their superiors in order to ferret out the »serious […] mistakes« the former might seek to hide from the latter. This expected obedience took several forms. The first and most obvious dimension in a century when France was rocked by revolution and rapid institutional change was that of functionaries’ political orthodoxy. Despite this, it is rare to find questions on political attitude in what could be described as official assessment sheets. The few exceptions are those for sub-prefects, political officials par excellence, or for employees at the Ministry of the Interior; in both cases, there are questions on »political antecedents« and the »current direction« of the person concerned. However, such questions do not figure in most of the forms devised by the various ministries, departments, and communes. We must not misinterpret this absence. We possess traces of parallel assessments, defined as of 1850 for the magistracy as »a matter of distinct and confidential work«,

Circular of 18. 11. 1850, p. 141.

and which, for its part, did apply to nearly all functionaries. This second approach to assessment, centered on functionaries’ political orthodoxy, is germane to our study in that it fulfils the criteria we have fixed: it seeks to establish the value, or at least a certain value of those working for the state; it is repetitive; and it is based on a certain number of items. This course of action, placed under the authority of the prefect, emerged under the Second Empire,

Le Bihan: Au service de l’État, p. 266.

before then being visibly generalized under the Third Republic.

Jean-Pierre Machelon: La République contre les libertés? Les restrictions aux libertés publiques de 1879 à 1914, Paris 1976, pp. 330–343.

Yet political obedience, though important, remained secondary to that seeking to inculcate a system of behavioral and working norms, which ultimately amounted to an attempt to impose discipline on subordinates by hierarchical superiors.

These phenomena played out over the lengthy course of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that the state’s attention to the competence and obedience of its officials intensified in the years 1830–1850: first, because it was over these decades that the project of rationally reforming the administration won the support of liberal elites;

Françoise Dreyfus: L’invention de la bureaucratie. Servir l’État en France, en Grande-Bretagne et aux États-Unis (xviiie–xxe siècles), Paris 2000, p. 171.

second, because the introduction of universal (male) suffrage in 1848 augmented the political role of state officials, because successive regimes were tempted to draw on them to influence electoral behavior. It is thus understandable that the phenomenon of assessment, as described above, expanded over these decades. But of course, officials themselves had to assume the roles they were thus assigned: it was only under these conditions that assessment could, as it were, invent them.

The question of appropriation

The concept of appropriation, though long neglected in the scholarship, is particularly useful for understanding how an innovation, particularly a complex one, gradually takes root in an organization, in this case the public administration. The concept is doubly useful in that it endows change with temporality, and directs our focus towards the actors, here the functionaries, called upon to give meaning to the change in which they were taking part.

Roxana Ologeanu-Taddei et al.: La capacité d’appropriation, une capacité organisationnelle immatérielle négligée dans l’adoption des systèmes d’information et de gestion, in: Innovations 47 (2015), pp. 79–100, at p. 81.

It thus merits being taken seriously. Here, it suggests we should think as concretely as possible about how functionaries used assessment sheets in nineteenth-century France.

Filling out assessment sheets produces, by definition, two positions: an assessor and an assessed. The assessor is, in the first instance, the person referred to in many circulars as the ›immediate superior‹, that is, the person placed one rank above: the prefect for the subprefect, the divisional labor inspector for the departmental inspector, the head of office for a ministry employee, and so on. The title of ›immediate superior‹ – sometimes appearing in this minimal form, as was the case for the Postes – was very often written across the bottom of the form, followed by a blank space for final observations and signature. It should be noted that in many cases the immediate superior was not the sole assessor, the opinion of his own superior often being required, sometimes even that of his superior’s superior, thus exhibiting on the sheet itself the administrative hierarchy from base to apex. At times, the addition or comparison of opinions could acquire a most convoluted complexion. As of 1890, no fewer than four different appraisers expressed their view of high school teachers: alongside and after the inspector general, the only true assessor in the precise meaning of the term, came the board inspector, the rector of the board, and the headmaster.

Le Guennec: Être professeur, p. 163.

It would clearly be wrong to state that all assessors visibly behaved in all cases in perfectly rationalized manner when writing down their opinions of their subordinates. On reading these assessment documents, one is struck by the severity, the brutality even, of the opinions expressed by the hierarchical superiors. »Always slow and stilted«, one may read about one quartermaster in 1896;

Francis Garcia: La carrière des intendants militaires de 1870 à 1914, unpublished PhD thesis, Université Bordeaux Montaigne 2015, p. 800.

»does no work, could serve as an example for those wishing [prefectural] secretary generals to be abolished«, one finds in a report from the early 1890s in which the prefect thoroughly slates his subordinate.

AN F1bI 451 – file on Paul Canale. Undated individual record [1891 or 1892].

One could add many examples of such appreciations which seem subjective to say the least, arbitrary to put it more bluntly. It should be appreciated that the severity of the assessment is sometimes reinforced by the ›immediate superior‹ being keenly aware that his opinion on his subordinate will be read by his own superiors or else by people of the same rank as him. In assessments of teachers, to take but one example, the reports sometimes provide the inspector with an ideal opportunity to exhibit their intellectual superiority to the detriment of the teacher being assessed, going over the lesson point by point and adding any omitted references.

Le Guennec: Être professeur, pp. 169f.

The idea that assessment was at times arbitrary, for that matter, went on to become a crucial element in its being severely questioned and subsequently altered during the Belle Époque, at a time when subaltern officials, who were by now more numerous and better organized, started demanding greater rights, and that the relationship between them and their superiors be recalibrated in their favor.

This notwithstanding, most of the reports and assorted documents written in the early nineteenth century display a real concern for reaching an exact analysis of the skills of the functionary being assessed. Most prefects filled out the forms with great seriousness of purpose, seeking which of their subordinates could constitute the »functionary of tomorrow«, to use an expression in widespread use in several branches. This manner of weighing things up, of assessing areas of skill, of pointing out limits, at times indicating that these might be overcome with time, is to be found in the vast majority of the reports on the various administrative professions. In short, assessing was a matter of looking to the future: of gauging and evaluating, including the long term, the usefulness of a given functionary within the organization in the light of a certain number of its shared norms. The need for the ›immediate superior‹ to be impartial was, for that matter, a point the circulars often insisted upon with great solemnity. As early as 1813 one may read in an instruction to the Douanes that the »head of administration« should be visited by »religious fear« in carrying out this »duty«, for »the impression of the judgements hazarded may follow an employee throughout his career« and thus ultimately turn out to be irreparable.

Circular of 17. 10. 1813, quoted in: Lois et règlements, tome 7, p. 330.

What is at stake in this work of assessment is, clearly, the assessor’s interiorization of his »role« – in sociologist Jacques Lagroye’s meaning of the term

Jacques Lagroye: On ne subit pas son rôle. Entretien avec Jacques Lagroye, in: Politix 38 (1997), pp. 7–17, at p. 8.

– as the ›immediate superior‹ in the hierarchy, thus the interiorization of his own position within the administrative organization. This hierarchical position was thus built up through practice and by a certain wielding of authority.

The corollary of this interiorization was that of affecting the functionary under assessment, which is admittedly harder to ascertain. We should point out straightaway that most functionaries knew the criteria by which they were judged, since in many branches they had to fill out the most factual part of the form themselves (date and place of birth, previous positions, et cetera), and could thus easily read the printed sections their hierarchical superiors had to fill out about them, though before these were completed. The date at which functionaries obtained partial access to the form admittedly differed widely from one sector to another. Thus it was only in 1905 that agents in the Travaux Publics [the highways service] were asked to »write in person their wishes [to change position] on their reports, together with factual information about their diplomas, service abroad, family position, et cetera«,

Aux travaux publics, in: Le Journal, 8. 6. 1905, p. 2.

while in the forestry office the injunction requiring those assessed to fill out the section on their past services, »their income, […] their family position, and postings they might wish for« dates from 1833.

Circular of 26. 12. 1833, p. 672.

Nevertheless, the overall direction is clear, and affected an ever-growing number of administrative professions.

Of course, this observation does not imply that all functionaries attached great importance to the assessments made of them, if simply because, in an administrative organization that was still far from resembling a Weberian ideal-type, many were not strictly speaking embarked on a career. The different perceptions and reactions to assessment is a topic of reflection in its own right, which would require factoring in the major differences in terms of social and cultural capital in the French administration of the period. These reservations notwithstanding, it would seem that a certain number of functionaries did care about their assessments, given that these exerted a certain influence over their potential for promotion.

Le Guennec: Être professeur, pp. 101f.

One may even go further and hypothesize that the pressure of being assessed contributed in part to progressive improvements in functionaries’ professional performance. Appraisals of conducteurs for the Ponts et Chaussées and of secondary school teachers indicate that the proportion of agents receiving good assessments increased over the course of the century, hence concomitantly with the expansion in the practice of assessment.

Le Bihan: Au service de l’État, pp. 287f.; Le Guennec: Être professeur, pp. 173–180.

Insofar as many functionaries very frequently found themselves in the position of assessing or being assessed, one may clearly argue that assessment, as a practice, played a decisive role in producing the nineteenth-century French functionary. We may say that the state was, in a way, invented via this fundamental innovation. The list of required skills set out, administration by administration, decade after decade, on everyday forms, carved out – or helped carve out – a particular mental and institutional landscape in which French functionaries had to operate. As of a very early stage, a concern with skill and properly executed work was an overarching value for state service in France, and above all formed part of the relationship with the public. One can understand nothing of the complex phenomenon by which the French state extended its hold over society in the nineteenth century without factoring in the constant reminder to functionaries of the need to serve the public, either via direct questions on »relations with the public«, or by checking that the work of the state was being correctly carried out by its servants. These documents were a modest tool in an immense conquest: that of a territory to be developed, and that of a population to be acclimatized to the in turn repressive, in turn protective presence of the state. For turning »peasants into Frenchmen«,

Eugen Weber: Peasants into Frenchmen. The modernization of rural France, 1870–1914, London 1977.

those serving the state had first to become functionaries.


All in all, the invention and dissemination of the practice of assessment needs to be understood in the context of state-building in France over the course of the nineteenth century. The years 1830–1914 were a specific period, separating a phase in which assessment did not exist, or was little used, from one where it started to be contested by functionaries, paving the way, in stages, to current practice in French public administration, namely the virtually automatic attribution of a numerical value based on years of service, thus leaving little leeway for assessors. These golden years of assessment tell us something about the French state in the second half of the nineteenth century. As its missions and extent of its hold over the territory became clearer, it became necessary, administration by administration, to define precise, often new tasks, and to specify skills and ways of being, in order to obtain the consent of the public, or of a particular public. In this era of administrative conquest, assessment was certainly one of the dynamic matrices by means of which the French state was repeatedly inventing itself – perhaps the most banal and most everyday of such matrices. These assessment sheets were remarkable in being an attempt to objectify boundless practical knowledge: technical knowledge, of course, relating to the specificity of the administrative profession concerned, but also knowledge pertaining to relations, behavior, and bodily deportment. In this respect, we differ with James Scott who, in »Seeing Like a State«, opposes the state’s cold, objective, painstaking knowledge, to the »metis«, the set of practical, untheorizable knowledge, as exemplified by peasants knowing exactly when to sow to obtain the best yields.

James Scott: Seeing like a State. How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, New Haven 1998, pp. 309–341.

On reading these assessment documents, one encounters – pace Scott – a sort of state metis: an interplay with concrete situations to provide the state with the best possible hold over society, via its functionaries. There is undoubtedly a process of rationalization at work here, even if it does not resemble the somewhat fixed idea we sometimes have of the Weberian model. This golden age also corresponds to a certain configuration of the contract between the state and those it employed: it was clearly a time of obedience. The generalization assigning numerical values, the fact that a functionary could consult his file, automatically leading to more diplomatically worded opinions, and the growing weight attached to seniority in promotions, began, from the Belle Époque onwards, to dissipate this particular, historically exceptional configuration. Ironically, the importance attached to bodily posture and nonverbal communication, the value accorded to the entire person of the agent in carrying out his work, the biographical preoccupation surrounding everything the functionary did, may at times recall – as if in a reversal of roles – ultracontemporary forms of management and its emphasis on soft skills. The attempts at reform in the wake of the crisis of the state following the glorious thirty-year period 1945–1975 may also remind us, here and there, of the massive undertaking of the nineteenth century – as if we once again needed to invent the functionary, compelled to cast off his mid-twentieth-century role as agent of the state triumphant.

However, rather than expanding the timeframe, the priority seems, to our minds, to extend this investigation to other contemporaneous organizations inside and outside the state sphere. For instance, the same propensity to formalizing assessment of staff skills may be observed concomitantly in the growing number of private establishments. In Le Creusot’s steel factories, for example, the largest industrial company in France at that time with thousands of workers, promotion to the rank of foreman was, as of the 1850s, based on an assessment system that was broadly comparable to those used in the administration. Workers’ »capacity« was graded as »very good«, »good«, »mediocre«, »acceptable«, or »bad«. The same scale was applied to their »behavior«, the only modification being that »acceptable« was replaced by »doubtful«.

Philippe Lefebvre: L’invention de la grande entreprise. Travail, hiérarchie, marché. France, fin XVIIIe-début XXe siècle, Paris 2003, pp. 237–238.

It would thus seem that beyond a certain critical threshold – in concrete terms, above a certain number of employees – some organizations needed to draw on this type of knowledge about their staff. Assessment not only spread across the very porous boundary, in the nineteenth century, between public and private organizations. One could also refer more generally to the entire nebula of assessment of people and behavior in nineteenth-century France, based – if we are to refer to cultural superstructures – on the tradition of religious oversight and the weight of confession. All these dynamics were at work in many countries other than France. If we look solely at public administration in various European states, it clearly progressed everywhere, at least in sectors that we may readily identify, such as Ottoman

Olivier Bouquet: Les pachas du sultan. Essai sur les agents supérieurs de l’État ottoman, 1839–1909, Paris 2007, pp. 47–105.

and Prussian

Marie-Bénédicte Vincent: Serviteurs de l’État. Les élites administratives en Prusse de 1871 à 1933, Paris 2006.

high-ranking territorial administration, or in the New York police force around 1900, for instance.

Yann Philippe: Une innovation impossible? Noter les policiers newyorkais (1900–1920), in: Genèses 113 (2018), pp. 63–92.

It would also seem to apply to all those working for the state in Austria, where Qualifikationslisten were introduced as of the late eighteenth century: powerful descriptions have been written on the objectives – along with the excesses and misuses – of these forms,

Ignaz Beidtel: Geschichte der österreichischen Staatsverwaltung, 1740–1848, Innsbruck 1896, vol. 1, 1740–1792, pp. 197–200; vol. 2, 1792–1848, pp. 43f., 112. See also John Deak: Forging a Multinational State. State Making in Imperial Austria from the Enlightenment to the First World War, Stanford 2015, pp. 60f., 128f.

and their analyses could be transposed almost directly to France. This needs to be verified on a solid documentary basis, and there are many comparative surveys to be conducted, at least for Europe.

About the Authors

Pierre Karila-Cohen is Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Rennes 2 and member of Tempora. His fields of specialization concern the history of the state, the police, investigations and the relationship of authority. He has published, among others, »L’État des esprits: L’invention de l’enquête politique en France« (1814–1848) (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008) and »Monsieur le Préfet : Incarner l’État dans la France du xixe siècle« (Ceyzérieu, Champ Vallon, 2021). He is about to publish a collective work, »Prefects and Governors in Nineteenth-Century Europe: Towards a Comparative History of Provincial Senior Officials« (Cham, Palgrave MacMillan, 2022).

Jean Le Bihan is a lecturer in contemporary history at the University of Rennes 2 and a member of Tempora. His preferred field of research is the study of the relationship between the state and social mobility in the 19th century. He has published, among others, »Au service de l’État : Les fonctionnaires intermédiaires au XIXe siècle« (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008). While continuing to work on the history of state agents, he is now also interested in the history of scholarships and fellowships from the French Revolution to the Great War.

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