Bastion of Meritocracy or Symbol of Elitism – The Issue of France’s ‘Grandes Écoles’
On 25 April, French President Emmanuel Macron announced a series of reforms as the product of national debates held with French citizens. In a response to the yellow vest movement, he announced reforms such as tax cuts and higher pensions. Next to these plans, Macron announced another reform that has little to do with the daily lives of most French citizens: shutting down the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a postgraduate school located in Strasbourg accommodating no more than a few hundred students. Nevertheless, Macron’s promise to shut down the school is among the most controversial of his new plans. In the country where the elite formally lost its head over two hundred years ago, the issue of elitism is still very much alive.
ENA is one of France’s ‘grandes écoles’, a league of elite universities with very high entrance standards. ENA is the most prestigious of these schools, annually producing no more than a hundred brilliant graduates that move straight into a top position in the French administration. Most graduates see ENA as a bastion of meritocracy in a world threatened to be overrun by populism, while a growing part of the French population sees the school as a symbol for a system that has been privileging the elite for decades. Tragically, Macron is an ENA graduate – just like a third of all French presidents before him. The school that has given rise to Macron’s impressive political career is now threatened to be shut down by one of its most renowned students.
Going back to the beginning of the story of ENA, the irony does not end there: President Charles de Gaulle founded the school in 1945 to democratiseaccess to the senior civil service as a part of his more general policy to curb the power of the French aristocracy that had been so toxic to the French Third Republic. Up until this day, its notoriously difficult entrance examinations only allow the best of the best to be admitted to the school – and have a successful career set in stone. Applicants are assessed based on knowledge of economics, law and international relations. Those who are talented and persistent enough to pass the written examination awaits the notorious ‘grand oral’, during which a jury can ask anything about topics ranging from politics to technology to literature.
There is no doubt that those that are admitted into ENA make for excellent civil servants, but the problem is that many who are not admitted would make equally good or even better candidates. Few of its students do not have previous qualifications from other elite institutes such as other grandes écoles, less than a third of its intake are women, and less than twenty percent has at least one parent from a working-class background.
Is his 2010 book ‘France’s Got Talent’, journalist Peter Gumbel dismantles the argument that ENA and other grandes écoles favour meritocracy, precisely because of these reasons. He points out that the system favours people from a well-off and well-educated background, because their social environment steers them towards fitting the very specific criteria of the schools. On top of that, the system favours technocrats over creative minds, creating a groupthink that is contributing to France’s political problems.
Something needs to change, but whether the current system can accommodate these changes is a matter of contention. ENA graduates – many of which know Macron personally – call for reforms within the grandes écoles, among which less rigid entrance examinations. Meanwhile, the yellow vest movement is not content by Macron’s promise to close ENA, as this is only one school out of many. According to them, a full decentralisation of the education system is necessary. Macron has made an unpopular choice, but was a good choice between his alma mater and the anti-elitists ever possible in the first place? Times of guillotines and revolutions are over, but the issue of elitism continues to plague France’s grandes écoles.