“Grenelle” galvaudé

4 September 2019

France is currently conducting a “Grenelle des violences conjugales,” the latest in a long series of “Grenelles.” Young folks may not know the origin of this peculiar appellation for a political form to which the French are peculiarly drawn. Here is some background.

The word comes to us from the “Accords de Grenelle” of 1968. The word “Grenelle” refers to the rue de Grenelle, which happens to be the seat of the Ministry of Labor. In 1968, in the thick of the general uprising of that year known simply as The Events, representatives of business, labor, and government met at the ministry and hammered out an agreement that included a 35% increase in the minimum wage and other concessions to working people. Although the “accords” were never formally signed by any of the parties, the Pompidou government nevertheless acted on them, and the general feeling that the government had retreated in the face of popular anger contributed to a calming of the situation and an eventual “return to normalcy,” although the new normal was quite different from the old.

Ever since, the word “Grenelle” has been applied to this kind of informal institution, in which the government invites civil-society representatives concerned with a particular issue to meet, talk, and assess the probability of compromise. The most notable post-68 “Grenelle” was probably Sarkozy’s “Grenelle de l’environnement” in 2007, which didn’t lead to much of anything.

It would take a long article to explore why the French are repeatedly drawn to this kind of informal ad hoc institution. Perhaps it’s because the formal institutions–government, Assembly, administration–often seem so locked down and impervious to taking in information from outside. The Grenelles open the doors and windows, but one wonders what becomes of the information after it is taken in. The “Grenelle” formula, when practiced in circumstances other than the dramatic chaos that surrounded the original, can seem to be little more than an exercise in political communication. It is strange how what was originally a non-institution or anti-institution conceived precisely to resolve an insoluble conflict has become a kind of institution unto itself, whose purpose is to raise the salience of an issue to which the government wishes to draw attention, rather than to deal, as in ’68, with an issue that the government had previously sought to avoid.


Photo Credit: mbzt, Paris VII rue de Grenelle, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 3.0.




  • peter gourevitch says:

    there is a long tradition in France and Europe of social representation and for many sceptical of the republic, superior to political institutions and an important supplement to them. De gaulle wanted a special chamber of such to balance the Assemblee. It is corporative thinking, stronger on the Right in France and Europe generally . It has a left version to some degree. The Soviets are a rival source of authority. Direct action , strikes, all such things mobilize social forces and challenge Political Institutions
    So it is deeply rooted tradition, going back well before the Accord de Grenelles, though Goldhammer is right on target is giving that word this origin. Sam Beer in writing the UK shows the strength of an old tradition there in “real society” , the various corporative social forms the Old Tory view felt demanded representation and resisted the Reform Bills of 1832 etc. which thought of representation and society as about individuals.

  • Your piece on “Grenelles” brings me to a remembrance of the late Nick Wahl for the second time in two days. (The first was evoked by a remark about his stepson, Boris Johnson.)

    In 1971 Nick invited me up to Princeton from Maryland to talk about a book project of mine on patterns of politics in a number of (mostly smaller) European countries that hinged on policy making through broad consultations — through which what we now call stakeholders might be coopted, if not into signing on to policies to at least not oppose or try to block them. The framework for what was to be a collaborative book could be characterized as a hybrid between corporate pluralism (in the social democratic Northern European mode) and the model of consociational democracy developed by Arend Lijphart. The prototype was the remiss system in Norway.

    During a very pleasant lunch discussion, Nick expressed great interest in writing a chapter on France, though in my mind the politics of the Fifth Republic resembled my “European Polity” model only in small, tangential ways. Nick insisted that the Grenelle was intended to operate in a similar fashion, to mute or moderate strong opposition by any organized interests or other significant actors because they would have sat around the table and had a chance to voice their concerns. He thought the corporatist aspects of cooptive politics might bring stability to the Fifth Republic. He was a constant seeker of ways to do that. I thought he was overstating the case for the Grenelle as a potentially expansive institution, but he was confident he could make the case.

    Unfortunately he never produced the chapter, repeatedly apologizing for his “tardiness.” The book went to press in the spring of 1973, with a rather different — and theoretically not really connected — chapter on France, written with alacrity by the late Bill Andrews.

    My impression of the meaning and significance of the Grenelle, nearly half a century later, is similar to yours, but I think there was the germ of an idea in Nick’s position. Unfortunately, never developed it, at least in writing.

  • Tom Holzman says:

    I think the problem here is that the French institutions tend so bureaucratic and rigid. To get outside the procedural rigidity, you have to go the informal route of the Grenelle. Makes sense to me.

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