This article analyzes the reforms introduced over the last quarter century into the French health care system. A particular public-private combination, rooted in French history and institutionalized through a specific division of the policy field between private doctors and public hospitals, explains the system's core characteristics: universal access, free choice, high quality, and a weak capacity for regulation. The dual architecture of this unique system leads to different reform strategies and outcomes in its two main parts. While the state has leverage in the hospital sector, it has failed repeatedly in attempts to regulate the ambulatory care sector. The first section of this article sets out the main characteristics and historical landmarks that continue to affect policy framing and implementation. Section 2 focuses on the evolution in financing and access, section 3 on management and governance in the (private) ambulatory care sector, and section 4 on the (mainly public) hospital sector. The conclusion compares the French model with those developed in the comparative literature and sets out the terms of the dilemma: a state-run social health insurance that lacks both the legitimacy of Bismarckian systems and the leverages of state-run systems. The French system therefore pursues contradictory policy goals, simultaneously developing universalism and liberalism, which explains both the direct state intervention and its limits.

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