The “Officer” of the Prefecture or the Frustrated Emergence of New Administrative “Ranks” in the 19th Century

By Jean Le Bihan

This paper aims to shed light on one particularly obscure group: the intermediate ranks of civil servants in the French préfectures and sous-préfectures (chief of division, head clerks, and secretaries). All these agents were under the authority of high-ranking civil servants of the préfecture (préfet, sous-préfet and secretary general) but also had some managerial responsibilities themselves. An analysis of their activity demonstrates that they played an increasingly strategic role in the service of the préfectures since their technical competence increased as the managerial element of their position became more important. At the same time, their lack of national status, which was also the lot of their subordinates, thwarted their self-assertion as a separate group. They had very few opportunities to develop their careers, and the departmental basis of their legal status made it difficult for them to organize collectively. Hence we may wonder what distinguished them from “mere employees.” Among the answers would be the difference in the officers’ salaries and the awarding of medals and titles to them as an important symbolic compensation. Ultimately, the history of these “officers” of the préfectures is a good example of the lag between French law and factual reality. This history also shows that the emergence of intermediate administrative groups in the nineteenth century was a more complex phenomenon than it first appears to be, and hence deserves careful reevaluation.


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