09/04/2014 09:30 am ET Updated Nov 04, 2014

No French for Leadership?

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For the second time in five months, the French President had to reshuffle his cabinet after his Economy Minister, Mr. Arnaud Montebourg, publicly and repeatedly criticized the government's economic policy.

Beyond the irony of having the (now former) Economy Minister of France attacking the economic strategy of a government he belonged to when he spoke, his critics constituted the peak of a wave of dissatisfaction that has not only spread across the public opinion but even among a significant number of parliament members belonging to the President's own political party.

In the context of French politics, a President getting rid of Ministers that challenge his leadership occurs several times during a term. This intended display of leadership (to fix a lack of thereof) is therefore not unusual in France, unfortunately. However, the frequency at which the turnover of Ministers is currently occurring is alarming, to say the least. It illustrates the crisis of political leadership that has been undermining the functioning of the country for years, and has been increasing since Mr. Hollande's election.

Political leadership in France is disconnected from the reality of the global context. It is fueled by the nostalgia of an idealized past and the fear of the 'plagues of capitalism', something Mr. Montebourg, often nicknamed "Mr. Made-in-France," has been championing.

Such a posture hampers both national well-being and France's international influence. Positive energy decreased as French people let the indecision, lack of vision and fear of their leaders becoming the image of their country. Six years ago, our country had enough energy and leadership to gather the international community and prevent Russia from invading Georgia and scale the G20 to fight the global economic crisis and speculation on raw materials. Today, Russia is ignoring that Georgia and Ukraine have boarders. And France is unable to display any leadership to put key topics on the global agenda, inspire and be supported by its key international partners.

What France urgently needs is everything but the usual anti-globalization pundits criticizing everything not French without offering any constructive and realistic solutions. France craves pragmatic visionnaires. People in charge who are grounded in domestic and international reality without being risk averse. Individuals ready to reform, would this hamper their re-election. Re-election has become the real enemy of reforms.

Where are France's Mateo Renzis and Gerhard Schröders? Obviously not in charge at the moment. It is unfortunately quite often these days that French political leaders publicly confess that the public opinion is not ready to accept some of the unpopular yet necessary remedies the country needs. They therefore acknowledge that poll results dictate the political agenda. The current Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, seems compelled, against his obvious natural tendency to shake things, take risks and willingness to pass drastic reforms, to embrace President Hollande's trademark method: favoring compromise over unpopular solutions that could make a positive difference and improve the state of the country.

Although the outcome of the actions of Italy's current Prime Minister are uncertain, his commitment to change things should inspire. Mr. Schröder's bold and unpopular decisions to restore German efficiency and pride in the early 2000's greatly helped shaping today's Germany, as much as they killed his future as the leader of his country.

One could argue that the revolutionary spirit - that leads thousands of French to strike and/or protest down the streets almost every time change is considered - constitutes the major stumbling block preventing French politicians to conduct the necessary reforms. Maybe. But isn't blaming the citizens too convenient?

Our current political leaders, often referred to as 'professional politicians' have clearly failed. One of the reasons might be that their great majority was raised, trained and appointed on French soil, with little if no international experience (except in Brussels) or in the private sector.

France needs a new breed of people in charge.

We need political leaders who are strong enough to embrace failure and offer realistic and innovative solutions to fix things. Enough of putting the blame on the usual suspects: Globalization, the European Union's technocracy, German "selfishness," the weakness of the Euro or the supposed link between immigration and unemployment.

France needs politicians brave enough to clearly state that there is no money anymore, that the only viable option is to cut on spendings. France needs to adopt a new law of finance where spending increases are not supposedly offset by "perhaps next year" savings.

We need committed individuals who understand the value of clarity, transparency, pedagogy, common sense, proven solutions and benchmarking. These are working in many countries, yet are largely being ignored in France. Our politicians must favor data over dogma, evidence-informed policy over beliefs and improvisation.

Recently, people were told by many government members that growth was (slowly but surely) coming back when data revealed the opposite. Unfortunately, in the recent past, French citizens have experience plethora of what can be considered at best as communication fails, but a lot of French people perceive as a display of incompetence -- if not deception. If French politicians were living in their times, they would know that fact-checking is easier than ever and their improvised decisions will always be called out, one way or another. Nowadays, politics still requires a vision, but rooted in a coherent strategy fueled by data, values and honesty.

A true systemic change is therefore required in France to: (1) decrease the cost of working rather than increasing taxes, (2) change dramatically the modus operandi of the public service, (3) decentralize the political power and (4) hire government members who are experienced in their field of action.

Ministers should be appointed based on their skills, adequacy with the political project, track record and the relevance of their experience. Today, the potential harm they can inflict the President if they do not get the job is too often the main reason why they end up in charge. This was clearly the case for the Economy Minister, who ran against Mr. Hollande during the presidential primary and has never been short of harsh comments against him before and after the election.

Hopefully, leadership is not dead in France. Entrepreneurs, global companies, mathematicians, artists (writers, designers, DJs), mathematicians, physicians, brain scientists and even economists are proving everyday that French excellence can help improving people's lives. Some of these leaders are praised internationally. Since they are barely known in their own country, they are almost never associated to domestic policy-making. International experience should be valued in France instead of being an issue.

We need diversity. Not just ethnic, cultural and gender diversity, but diversity in experience, values, vision, method, expertise and age. Appointing two successful individuals in their late 30s to two key Ministries (economy and education) is a micro-step in the right direction taken by the French President and his Prime Minister. But this is not enough. Shared values are needed. This will only possible when inclusiveness will allow civil society's brightest and minds to have their share of decisional power in policy-making -- be them company or NGO executives, social workers, entrepreneurs, artists, millennials or spiritual leaders.

We need pragmatism. Behaviorally evidence-informed cost-effective policy that leads to growth, health and well-being should be a priority. There is an urge to set long term goals, independent of the political agenda yet leaving enough degrees of freedom for new forms of leadership and policy making to emerge, even if we cannot foresee them now.

In these troubled times, where political leadership is shaken, a new class of French politicians should arise and seize the opportunity to improve the state of their country and its global positioning.

Only then could leadership be part of the French dictionary. But so far, there is no French (word) for leadership.


Pierre-Alexandre Teulié is the co-founder and CEO of GOV -a smartphone app dedicated to rating politicians- and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum. He used to be in charge of French industry and employment policies as Christine Lagarde' special advisor and spent, up to executive committee, 15 years in Fortune 100 companies. Twitter: @pateulie

Olivier Oullier is a professor of behavioral and brain sciences at Aix-Marseille University, a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum and the co-founder of The Science of Communication. He was in charge of the Neuroscience and Public Policy Program at the French Prime Minister's Center for Strategic Analysis and now consults globally for organizations on communication, engagement and evidence-informed strategies. Twitter: @emorationality

*The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the institutions and company they work with.