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WIAF vignette: The Man in the Pyramid

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  • WIAF vignette: The Man in the Pyramid

    [This is a short vignette I wrote for With Iron and Fire to give a glimpse of the situation in France after the end of the main narrative circa 1950. If the format is congenial I'll write more for different countries.]

    It all started innocuously enough. After the devastation of WW2, the fledgling Fourth Republic had set up a new administration, the Commissariat Général au Plan, to oversee the reconstruction of the French economy. Its first director had been Jean Monnet, networker and lobbyist extraordinaire, but in 1952 he had stepped down in order to focus full-time on the nuts and bolts of European institutional integration; to replace him he had handpicked one of his closest collaborators from the war years, Etienne Hirsch. A civil engineer by training and expert on the chemical industry by profession, Hirsch had gone over to London in 1940 and joined the Free French; after the war he had followed Monnet into the CGP. Soon after becoming commissaire au Plan in his own right, he began to realize that even though he was expected to report directly to the president of the Council of Ministers, in practice the distressingly short lives of governments under the Fourth Republic meant that nobody was paying much attention to what he was doing. Every few months a new figurehead president showed up only to be replaced by the next one as soon as his parliamentary majority was overturned. As a result, the civil service throughout France's high administration started to consider itself the guardian of continuity, those who actually got things done while interchangeable politicians postured and bickered; it helped that its ranks were mostly staffed with graduates of the same three or four elite schools (Ecole Nationale d'Administration, Ecole Polytechnique and Hirsch's own alma mater Ecole des Mines). The troubled decolonization in Algeria, which left the regime tottering, only made matters worse: for nearly two years the successive French governments were almost solely focused on the unfolding crisis across the Mediterranean, leaving domestic bureaucracies without meaningful oversight.

    By the late 1950s the CGP was already becoming the unofficial managing organization of France's "deep state", but things moved to another level after the completion in 1962 of the new administrative capital, Paris-Cité Administrative or, as most people refer to it, La Roche-Guyon. The epitome of post-WW2 technocratic thinking, Paris-Cité Administrative was intended to relieve the congestion in Paris proper by moving the state's administrative apparatus en masse to a rationally planned city. Designed by architects Eugène Beaudouin and Marcel Lods, it was to be the 20th century's answer to Saint-Petersbourg and Washington D.C., as well as a showcase of modernist-brutalist architecture. The ambitious project was managed from the start by the CGP itself, so it is no surprise that its most remarkable building, right in the center of the new city, was the CGP headquarters: a 30-story-high inverted pyramid of glass and concrete, complete with suspended garden and helipad, and with Hirsch's office on the top floor.

    Paris-Cité Administrative was linked to Paris proper with an eight-lane highway, a classic rail line, and an aerotrain monorail line inspired by Yakutia's own ground glider network (soon expanded to Brussels in order to facilitate the commute to and from EEC offices, and later to Amsterdam and Frankfurt). But since Paris proper remained the ceremonial capital and offered a more comfortable setting than the austere concrete utopia at La Roche-Guyon, ministers preferred to remain there even though they were provided with brand-new offices at the latter place. Meanwhile, the CGP had relocated into its new headquarters, and the various national administrations in theirs, making it all the easier for the budding French technocracy to free itself of any but the most cursory oversight from elected politicians. By the mid-1960s Hirsch had become the most powerful man in France, and could implement at will his agenda of industrial modernization, infrastructural development and institutional integration with the EEC's growing supranational apparatus.

    He wasn't particularly secretive, but the average French person probably wouldn't have recognized him in the street; he was, after all, merely the head of some boring bureaucratic body which normal people didn't deal with in the course of their lives that they knew of. Hirsch liked it that way; what media exposure he got what on his terms, and if some journalist got too curious a phone call to his boss, whom Hirsch probably knew by his first name and might have shared the odd mistress with, put an end to it.
    With Iron and Fire now available on Kindle!

  • #2
    By the way, I requested that Bruno repost this over at the other place on my behalf.
    With Iron and Fire now available on Kindle!