Inside View: Elitists and anarchists say non to capitalism

I have been tear-gassed three times in Paris. This isn't due to any latent political extremism. Last time, it was just while out buying a Sunday paper. Political protest so quickly turns to violence there, passers-by get swept along with it. This public frustration is directed at the technocratic elite that rules France.

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.walker@hsam.co.uk

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvSpoiler alert: It has been talked about for months
Arts and Entertainment
James Hewitt has firmly denied being Harry’s father
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Sir James Dyson: 'Students must be inspired to take up the challenge of engineering'
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Catherine (Sarah Lancashire) in Happy Valley ((C) Red Productions/Ben Blackall)
TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Equity | New York

Not specified: Selby Jennings: Quantitative Research | Global Equity | New Yor...

Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation

Not specified: Selby Jennings: SVP Model Validation This top tiered investment...

Selby Jennings: Oil Operations

Highly Competitive: Selby Jennings: Our client, a leading European Oil trading...

Day In a Page

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

Homeless Veterans appeal

Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

Scarred by the bell

The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

The Locked Room Mysteries

As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

How I made myself Keane

Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

Wear in review

A look back at fashion in 2014
Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

Might just one of them happen?
War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

The West needs more than a White Knight

Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

The stories that defined 2014

From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?