Off with grand heads

The tumbrils are rolling for France's new elite; graduates of a school that promises high flyers jobs for life
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The Independent Online
You have never heard of Benoit Ribadeau-Dumas and Julien Carmona, and neither have many people in France. Not yet anyway. But, if history is a guide, within 20 years, perhaps sooner, they will be among the most senior figures in French government or business.

Alternatively, France may be heading for a new revolution and their heads could - metaphorically - end up stuck on the end of poles long before that.

In the last couple of weeks, Benoit and Julien, both in their mid twenties, learned that they had come first and second respectively in the intellectual pecking order, or classement, at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), the most prestigious seat of learning in France, and the most loathed.

In theory, ENA is no more than a civil service college, but for the left, the far-right, and many in between, it has become a symbol of what has gone wrong with France. Created by General de Gaulle in 1945, ENA's role was to supply France with a new, meritocratic elite, to replace the socially- selected elite which had betrayed France in 1940. Now the new elite is blamed for betraying France again - though in a different way.

ENA is accused of creating a rigid, corporatist political mind-set, "la pensee unique", which has left France poorly equipped to face globalisation. It is held responsible for a self-perpetuating, anti-democratic oligarchy which prevents more practical or creative administrative or political talent from rising in the system. It is accused of colonising the top jobs in state, semi-state and private industry, with disastrous effect.

Jean-Yves Haberer who presided over the pounds 10bn debacle at Credit Lyonnais was an "enarque", as ENA pupils, past and present, are known. So was the man in charge of French blood banks when HIV-contaminated blood was injected into the system. So was Jacques Attali, the man who filled the London offices of the European reconstruction bank with costly marble. So were five of the last seven French prime ministers; and two of the last three Presidents. So are 40 per cent of senior ministerial advisers. So are 350 chief executives in French commerce and industry. (On the other hand, so are hundreds of unsung French officials who are simply getting on competently with their jobs.)

The forces of anti-enarchie are oiling the wheels of their tumbrils. There is a group, mainly populated by non-ENA civil servants, called Ocsena - Organisation Contre le Systeme ENA - whose slogan is "Yesterday the Bastille, today the ENA". Jean-Michel Fourgous, an RPR (Gaullist) member of parliament, has tabled a draft law calling for ENA to be abolished. He says: "The enarques have become a caste apart, preoccupied with developing their own sphere of influence. We can no longer accept Martians making laws for earthlings ... we need a ritual sacrifice."

Overblown this may be, but ENA is a manifestation of things that have gone astray in France - the rigidity of structures, the respect for form rather than creativity. On the other hand, it is conscious of them, and can hardly be blamed for perpetrating them. Conversations in recent days with several of the new crop of enarques suggest that they are anything but the pointy-headed, arrogant, self-absorbed perpetuators of French state corporatism portrayed in media and political folklore. They share many of the criticisms of the French system, and ENA, with the ENA-baiters.

Julien Carmona, 26, number two in this year's hierarchy, and therefore one of the cleverest young people in France, turns out to be a modest, thoughtful, friendly, open-minded young man. "ENA is only a symptom of a more general habit of mind in France," he said in excellent English, over a coffee in a boulevard cafe. "It is a symptom of an education system which values knowledge above initiative, a political system still too devoted to the concept of the Etat Activiste [interventionist state]. Politicians, and the teachers at ENA, are moving away from this, but too slowly. This is something we must learn from the Anglo-Saxon world, and we can do so without giving up being French."

Julien does admit, however, that he was attracted to ENA - rather than, say, to a career in business - because it is still "the way to get on in France. It means I can keep my options open for much longer... I can stay in the administration or, at a later stage, look for a senior job in business." He says that, at this stage, he has no interest in a political career, but he does understand why enarques go into politics. Since there is no tradition of an independent civil service in France, you have to be politically connected to get anything done.

It is this tendency of enarques to spill out of the civil service into the highest levels of politics and business which lies at the heart of the criticism. Olivier Debouzy, former deputy head of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, now a partner in a law firm in Paris and himself an enarque, puts it this way: "In Britain there is not one elite. There are elites. You have a social elite, a political elite, an intellectual elite. They can overlap but they are not the same. In France there is only one elite and it reproduces itself through a narrow set of educational institutions, with ENA at the head.

"The ambition of the best and brightest in France is not to create a Microsoft a la francais but to go into the administration and then, after a dozen years, parachute into the high levels of business without any entrepreneurial experience. No other country organises things in this way."

What exactly is ENA and how does it work? You can now enter ENA - based at 13, rue de l'Universite (in the seventh Paris arrondissement) - as a mature student from the civil service or from local politics or business, but the classic route is to enter in your early twenties through the top Paris lycees and the elite colleges known as the grandes ecoles.

After two six-month "stages" in local government, in an embassy abroad or - increasingly - in a private company, the pupils spend 15 months in Strasbourg and Paris learning how to be French mandarins. "In a sense, after the stages, when you go to ENA itself, you learn nothing," said Brice Charles, another of this year's graduates. "That is the great disappointment and mystery of ENA. It is not a school in the educational sense at all. It's a system for testing what you already know, for grading civil servants, for deciding how well you will cope with the kinds of problems that might be thrown at you." Mr Debouzy says that, in his day, ENA was a "system for testing how flexible your spine was. If it wasn't flexible, you didn't do well in the classement." More recent graduates insist that the school is more open to initiative and fresh-thinking.

When you graduate from ENA you do not receive a diploma, you receive a number. The 104 students in each intake or "promotion" are graded from 1 to 104. All are guaranteed a job in the civil service but their place in the classement decides how good a job they get. If you finish in one of the coveted top 15 places, you are ceremoniously invited into one of the elite companies of the French bureaucracy, known as the "grands corps". The best placed enarques each March tend to be invited to be Inspecteurs de Finance, and those just below the top go into the Cours de Comptes (Court of Accounts) or the Conseil d'Etat (Council of State). All of these are, initially, genuine functions, involving the auditing or vetting of public spending or actions. But they also confer a life-time status and can catapult their members, after a few years, into the highest jobs in politics, administration and business.

Much of the criticism and resentment generated by ENA would more properly be directed at this system of grands corps, which existed long before ENA did. Before the war, members of the grands corps were recruited by social class and family contacts and were interviewed wearing morning suits and white gloves. The ENA meritocracy is an improvement on that. But the system of choosing high-flyers - and virtually guaranteeing them high flyerdom for life - at the age of 25 or 26 is bizarre in the extreme.

Laurent Fabius (ENA 1973, Cour des Comptes) had the most meteoric rise of any enarque: 11 years from graduation to becoming (briefly) a Socialist prime minister. He now argues, quite sensibly, that there is nothing necessarily wrong with ENA. The real absurdity is the immediate appointment of the top few graduates into this administrative praetorian guard. Admission to the grands corps should, he says, be delayed for 10 years.

Things are already changing. Though elements of prestige, cushiness and permanence remain, the status of the grands corps has been eroded. Apart from the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe (ENA 1972, Inspecteur de Finances), only three out of 16 full ministers in the present French government are even enarques. It used to be common for members of the grands corps to parachute into senior jobs in banking and industry, with unfortunate consequences. Following the disaster at Credit Lyonnais and other state-owned financial institutions, this as now been banned by law. Enarques can still go into industry, but by recruitment, not self-appointment.

Now ENA may be changing from within. The most devastating criticism is that it perpetuates the traditional, corporatist way of thinking and produces young people who are likely to be part of France's problem rather than part of the solution. If the young enarques I met had a "pensee unique", it was to be reformist, internationalist, fiercely French but open to the best of what happens elsewhere. One young man very high in this year's classement, who preferred not to be named, said that he thought that the biggest challenge facing France in the coming years was to "dismantle the executive and bureaucracy-dominated state we have now and replace it with something more genuinely democratic. We don't have a real democracy in France."

Olivier Debouzy replies: "The problem is you don't become an enarque at ENA. You may emerge with all kinds of noble ideas about serving the state, and reforming the state, but you become an enarque when you enter the system. "

Maybe. Like the Bastille, ENA has become a convenient symbol of an ancien regime, which seems to have failed France. But, like the revolutionaries of 1789, the protestors ignore the painful changes for the good that are occurring already in both ENA and France. When the Bastille was stormed, the revolutionaries found only a few petty criminals and lunatics. If ENA were ever stormed by the political and media mob in France, they might be equally surprised. Inside there is a bunch of young people who are no less anxious than they are about their country's future.