That elite lost one of its finest this week, with the fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the finance minister. So, will the nascent economic recovery meet political and structural obstacles? Does France too suffer from the forces of conservatism?
Demos - or manifs (manifestations) - are part of everyday life in the French capital. Clearly, the roots of this lie in the extreme divisions in French politics. At a time when few former Iron Curtain countries would be seen dead admitting they still had a Communist party, the French version is alive and well. Opposition has a peculiarly anarchic tinge. When anarchists attacked Fauchon (Paris's equivalent of Fortnum & Mason), it was rather bizarre to see them dashing marrons glaces to the floor.
There is a very real element in France that seems to find capitalism disgusting. Some weeks ago there was a sad march by the employers' federation. Rather pathetically the Gradgrinds of modern France had decided to stage their own demo. What were they demanding? The right to make a profit! This may seem strange, but the hot debate in French political circles today is the "Michelin affair". The group tried to make people redundant just after reporting record profits. Some want it to be illegal to make anyone redundant if you are in profit.
A flexible labour market has yet to reach France.
Taxes on employment were long ago isolated and attacked in the UK. In France, restrictions still exist and are particularly severe in the financial sector. You not only have a tax if you employ someone, but a super tax if the company is deemed to be profiting from "trading". I recently met one French financier who had moved back to Paris having worked in the City of London. He had set up his own bond-trading firm employing a growing a number of professionals. It is the sort of thing that would cheer Gordon Brown's stony heart. The French financier was nearly reduced to tears at the many impediments placed in his way. He'll soon be back in London.
The anarchists shouting down the small businessmen on the Rue de Rivoli are bad enough, but what is perhaps more frightening is the incipient anti-commercialism that penetrates to the very heart of the French establishment.
Central to this is the dominance of elitist institutions such as ENA. In Britain we talk of the power of Oxbridge; in France it is ENA - the cole Nationale d'Administration. It was set up after the Second World War - as a further refinement of the grandes ecoles system originated by Napoleon - to feed first-rate minds into France's civil service.
The power of this institution is amazing. Not content with their stranglehold over the civil service, graduates of ENA long ago moved in to control large sections of industry. One US broking house recently published an article showing that two-thirds of the CAC 40 companies (France's FT-SE) were controlled by graduates of the grandes ecoles. This included many of the biggest names, such as Societe Generale, Axa and BNP.
ENA's brain boxes have such power they are known as enarques. It's in this light that we need to consider the fall of Dominique Strauss-Kahn. His office was packed with fellow enarques and his chosen successor, budget minister Christian Sautter, is an acknowledged technocrat. To many there is a growing feeling that the recent economic recovery could be jeopardised by the oligarchy controlling French business. The strength of public reaction in the last few days comes from this whiff of sulphur.
This, of course, seems very odd to the US way of thinking. Remember that the A in ENA stands for administration and that the school was established as a civil service feeder. Even if it were an institution devoted entirely to the teaching of commercial and financial matters, it might still be a justifiable question whether the enarques it turns out would not have done better having a spell in industry or commerce. Can you be taught money making, or must you learn it?
This elitism comes from the extraordinary respect for the intellectual in France. Just as the financier is loaded down with penalties for practising his craft, so-called intellectual professions such as writers (even journalists) actually get tax reductions - very good for conversations in the cafes of the Boul' Mich, but not necessarily for the engine room of the economy.
In the Sixties a journalist asked the Chinese leader Chou En-lai what he thought of the French Revolution. The wise statesmen smiled, and replied: "Too early to say." Maybe now we are getting the answer.
Christopher Walker is a director of Hill Samuel. Christopher.firstname.lastname@example.orgReuse content