Half a century of French political science
An interview with Jean Leca, President of the French Political Science Association
by Christophe Roux

Entretien publié dans le n°3 (2) de 2004 de la revue European Political Science de l'ECPR : European Consortium for Political Research

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The seventh congress of the French Political Science Association (AFSP) — held in Lille in September 2002 — provided an opportunity to interview the Association’s president, Jean Leca. As a result of this interview, it is now possible to offer EPS readers an overview of French political science, following the articles on the discipline in the Netherlands, in Sweden and in Central and Eastern Europe, that have appeared in previous issues of the journal.

CR — What are the origins of contemporary French political science?

JL — Its genesis can be traced to the end of the nineteenth century with the birth of the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques (Free School of Political Sciences) created by Emile Boutmy in Paris in 1871. This institution aimed at training a new state elite by teaching a range of disciplines. Philosophy, law, economics and history were brought together specifically to raise the capabilities of the future ruling class following defeat in the war against Prussia. These disciplines were referred to as the ‘political, economic and social sciences’. From an academic point of view, what we are nowadays accustomed to calling ‘political science’, did not exist: sociologists (especially those of the Durkheimian school) and (social) historians tended to neglect politics, regarding it as an epiphenomenon that could not be considered as a distinct object of research. Actually, the origins of French political science are to be found in public law and geography at the beginning of the twentieth century. On the one hand, a number of lawyers (among them, Léon Duguit and Maurice Hauriou) were interested in the study of the factual meanings of legal norms and in diverse aspects of a ‘theory of the state’. On the other hand, electoral studies were introduced by André Siegfried — author, in 1913, of the Tableau de la France de l'Ouest, and who was later to be considered the founding father of the discipline in France. Notwithstanding all of this, we can borrow Massimo d’Azeglio’s aphorism about nation building in Italy to say that if the foundations of political science had been laid, then it remained to make the political science community...

CR — Indeed. And as elsewhere in Europe, the postwar period was decisive. What were the main landmarks in the building of such a community?

JL — The building of the French political science community can be roughly described as the consequence of two main historical steps. The first consisted of the birth of the IPSA/AISP (led by UNESCO whose offices are in Paris). It was constituted as an association of national associations in 1949 and the French Political Science Association was one of its four founding members (along with the American, Canadian and Indian associations). True, this event was insufficient, by itself, to bring the task of building a political science community to a conclusion: the association was a small ‘club of gentlemen’ recruited by co-optation — one whose fifty-or-so members were practitioners interested in pursuing their own idiosyncratic endeavours, rather than in becoming the components of a genuinely scientific community involved in social scientific activities. But it was these individuals who laid the foundations for the further development of the discipline. Some of them (like Raymond Aron, Jean Meynaud and François Goguel) were administrators with the National Foundation of Political Sciences (FNSP) based at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (IEP) in Paris, both institutions that were founded in 1945. Others (such as Maurice Duverger at the IEP in Bordeaux) were law professors who directed the other IEPs that were progressively created in the main cities. The last group is composed of journalists and high civil servants. Most of them shared the characteristic of having been alumni of the Ecole Libre.

The second step was realised in the 1960s and the 1970s with political science’s progressive democratisation and integration into French universities. Thanks to Maurice Duverger and Georges Vedel, from 1964 political science was taught in faculties of law (via courses entitled ‘Social Science Methodology’, ‘Contemporary Political Issues’, ‘Political Sociology’, and so on) but was somewhat less present in faculties of letters (in spite of a certain interest the history of international relations). The PhD in political science was then established (through the ‘doctorat de troisième cycle’ and the prestigious ‘doctorat d'Etat’). From 1969, political science was recognised as an autonomous discipline within universities, and from 1972 a specific concours d'agregation (a competition used to decide professorial appointments) was established. In 1982 a ‘political sciences’ section was created within the Human and Social Sciences Department of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and became the nucleus of the ‘Politics, Power and Organisation’ section born in 1991. Such developments took place in a context marked by growing numbers of students and an expansion in research facilities (survey centres are a good example: with the exception of the Ifop institute, which was created in 1938, the other important ones were created from the 1960s. Sofres was created in 1962; Bva in 1970; Ipsos in 1975; Louis Harris France in 1976; Ifres in 1979, and Faits et Opinions in 1980).

CR — To what extent can this ‘community-building’ now be considered complete?

JL — The development of our academic community has been slow, because it is not easy to achieve agreement among specialists in the human and social sciences. In the first place, there is competition between political scientists and other social scientists. Thus, from a practical point of view, there was — and still is — resistance among public law professors, who — as shown, for example, by the ‘international relations’ courses given by professors whose lessons deal with international law — feel themselves capable of talking about politics. From a theoretical point of view, political science has been criticised — and actually strongly influenced — by sociologists, especially by Raymond Boudon (who has criticised our taste for history) and above all by the late Pierre Bourdieu (who denounced traditional political science as one of the tools of domination and who has received considerable attention from some French political scientists). That is why the institutionalisation of French political science has been a slow process, one that reached a satisfactory level only in the late 1980s. In the second place, the internal cohesion of the discipline must be reinforced: first, there are territorial imbalances with too heavy a concentration of resources in Paris and an excessive variety of subjects taught as between one master’s programme and another. And such difficulties are increased by the traditional tension that exists between political science, the media and politics and that has been particularly keenly felt in France. The positions that researchers express in the public domain can have consequences for how they are evaluated as professionals. Mathematicians are judged only on the basis of their scientific endeavours, while this is less likely to be true for political scientists. As a consequence, the discipline suffers from a lack of consensus concerning the bases on which one can decide whether a political scientist is good or bad. That is why the main purpose of the AFSP must be to defend the discipline’s distinctiveness as compared to the other social sciences (and it succeeds in doing this to a reasonable degree) but also to reinforce its sense of community.

CR — A certain number of reforms have been implemented in research and teaching since the 1980s. What is the current state of the discipline and its Association in France today?

JL — Held once every three years, the Association’s congress provides an opportunity to evaluate the current state of the discipline. The AFSP has about 1,000 members of whom 560 are currently up-to-date with their membership fees (treasurers do not always make this aspect public!) and among whom there are a certain number of non-French nationals and non-political scientists. The Association has six standing groups on: European politics and policy; local government and politics; public policies; political activism; electoral studies, and, most recently, comparative politics. Its main task is to publicise the results of activities in the discipline and to promote scientific initiatives (round tables, workshops, seminars, etc.).

Political scientists teach their discipline in two kinds of institution. The first is the IEPs: they are establishments that aim to provide training for those contemplating administrative, academic and commercial careers. They are elite institutions, there being only nine of them. They are located in Paris (whose IEP is the only one to have complete autonomy); in Bordeaux; in Toulouse; in Aix-en-Provence; in Lyon; in Grenoble; in Strasbourg, and, since 1991, in Rennes and Lille — and each is linked to its city’s university. They take only a limited number of students, selected via a process of competitive entrance examination. The second kind of institution is the faculties of law (whose full titles usually include the term ‘political science(s)’). Most of the students who are taught political science will not study it beyond graduation but it is part of their training. Political science becomes the central focus of study for those who choose a specialisation in their fourth (maîtrise) and fifth (masters) years. In the case of the latter, students graduating from IEPs or faculties of law (but also faculties of sociology, philosophy and history) are selected to prepare a ‘DEA’ (theoretical) or ‘DESS’ (more practice-oriented) diploma. Created in the mid-1980s, they are about to be replaced by the European masters degree, while the PhD programmes were modified by introduction of the ‘doctorat nouveau régime’ in 1992. These programmes do not make it compulsory to take specific courses other than research seminars, nor do they involve formal examinations. They normally last three years. Administratively, they have, since 2000, been organised within the framework of ‘doctoral schools’ (écoles doctorales).

Outside the academic world, such training offers quite good opportunities as compared to training in other disciplines such as sociology and law: a number of interesting jobs are available in local and regional administrations; in areas requiring policy expertise or involving relationships with interest groups; in survey centres or in Parliament. In the academic field the situation is clearly unsatisfactory. There are not enough jobs available for the number of (good) young PhD-holders in political science. There were, for example, just nine places in the whole country in 2001. That is why it is also the Association’s duty to maintain links with the more specifically focussed associations (such as the Researchers and Teachers’ Association and the association for PhD-holders and students) that have emphasised the lack of resources for political research and teaching.

Research activities are essentially structured by the CNRS, whose initiatives are financed through the research funds held by the universities. That is to say, research is financed almost exclusively by public funds (unlike in the United States, private institutions and foundations do not finance such research). The main topics are political sociology (electoral studies, political behaviour, party politics, local government, etc.); political history; political philosophy; public policy, and area studies (especially Africa). But a weakness of the system is that not all universities have political science departments and there are still too many institutions where political science is not taught by political scientists but by public law professors.

The available channels for the dissemination of academic work are satisfactory enough: there are five main political science journals stricto sensu: Revue Française de Science Politique (published by the Association six times a year since 1951); Politix (first published in 1988); Politique Européenne (which, since 2000, has published articles on EU matters in both French and English); the Revue Internationale de Politique Comparée (which is based on a French-speaking partnership between France, Belgium and Switzerland); Pôle Sud (which is mainly focused on Southern Europe). The latter two journals have both been published since 1994. There are also additional journals that can act as outlets for the work of political scientists — this thanks to the proximity of the disciplines involved. For example, in the field of historical sociology, there is the journal Genèses; in political philosophy there is Raisons Politiques, and in international relations and politics, there is Cultures et Conflits and Critique Internationale. In book publishing things are not so good since the market is more restricted. However, every year the FNSP publishes a certain number of books through the ‘Presses de Sciences Po’ (from 1976 to 1995 known as the ‘Presses de la Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques’) while political science collections are produced by all the main publishers (such as Presses Universitaires de France, La Découverte, L'Harmattan, Fayard, Economica, and so on). These traditional outlets have now been added to by growing use of the Internet (as for the congress).

CR — What about internationalisation? This has been one of the key issues during the seventh congress...

JL — It has undoubtedly been the central topic of the congress and it is the main challenge the discipline must face. The record of French political science in the international sphere in the post-1945 period is not very satisfactory. Since Duverger, and if we exclude Jean Blondel who has built his career in the UK, France has not made a major contribution to the elaboration of broad frameworks of analysis, such as those which emerged in comparative politics during the 1960s and the 1970s (for example, Easton’s political socialisation, Lijphart’s consociationalism, etc.). This is also true (with the exception, perhaps of Bernard Manin) in the field of normative theories in political philosophy. In France comparative politics has developed out of traditional domains (such as comparative party systems and legislatures); it has mainly consisted of implicit comparison à la Tocqueville through a focus on given cultural areas (Africa, Latin America); it has adopted a qualitative perspective (and little ethnocentrism compared to some American works). Certainly this observation must be qualified when it comes to some fields (such as international relations, social movements and public policy analysis, which, in France, stress the still decisive weight of the state). But this main trend leads, for example, to an excessive interest in nineteenth-century France, which is studied by comparing it to the present, and which encourages a continuous return to one’s own origins. This passion for history, which is an illustration of the interdisciplinary perspective deeply rooted in the organisation of the discipline, is probably the main characteristic feature of French political science. This kind of perspective can be integrated into mainstream European political science only with difficulty. In fact, this political historical sociology encourages links with foreign historians or sociologists but not with political scientists! Clearly, the boundaries of the discipline are not defined in the same way in France and in the other main European countries. When to this is added the low level of linguistic investment in the English language, one begins to understand the weakness of French participation in European (and extra-European) programmes of study (such as those offered by the European University Institute) and in conferences and other events (such as the ECPR Joint Sessions). That is why, without striving for a harmful standardisation that could ruin the creativity of research, taking these European trends more fully into account probably constitutes one of the main tasks of the current generation of young researchers.


This interview with Jean Leca took place during the seventh congress of the French Political Science Association in Lille on September 20th 2002. It was conducted and translated by Christophe Roux.

Key quotes:

‘Thanks to Maurice Duverger and Georges Vedel, from 1964 political science was taught in faculties of law…’

‘Clearly, the boundaries of the discipline are not defined in the same way in France and in the other main European countries.’