French connection

After a slow start, France is now flying the MBA flag high

On the face of it, then, it is strange that the MBA took time to take off across France as a whole, especially given the rich heritage of business education in the country. Napoleon oversaw the creation of the network of Grandes Ecoles two centuries ago. These were elite, semi-private business, and engineering, schools funded by local chambers of commerce, and designed to educate and groom the business and industrial leaders of the future. The Grande Ecole label still has cachet and clout today.

Throughout the 19th century, with these institutions at the centre, management education continued to develop across France, providing the supply of executives who would establish the country as a leading world economy.

However, until relatively recently, most business education was undertaken immediately after a first degree, often concentrating on bolting on commercial knowledge and expertise to a technical or engineering qualification. The idea of gaining a few years' work experience first, before returning to education to hone skills - the MBA model - was late to arrive in France.

But take off it did, and in the past decade or so, France has established itself as the second largest MBA market in Europe outside the UK. There are over 200 MBA programs across the country and over 6,000 students currently aiming to tack these three letters onto their CV.

However, to navigate your way through the various institutions in France, you'll need to be good at de-coding names of places that consist of nothing more than a string of initials.

Perhaps following INSEAD's lead, three of the best-known business schools in Paris have the universally used handles of HEC, ESCP-EAP and ESSEC. Away from the capital, the initials ESC (Ecole Supérieure de Commerce) attach themselves to leading business education institutions in Lyon, Lille and Grenoble, among others.

This can be confusing to the outside observer, not steeped in the nuances of French language and educational development, a constituency making up the bulk of potential participants on MBA programmes based in France.

So, in the last few years, efforts have been made to give these places more user-friendly names, at least when referred to in the English language. So HEC has become HEC School of Management, for example, the management school in Nantes has re-branded itself as Audencia, and you now do an MBA at the Grenoble Graduate School of Business.

But what has led to the largest increase in the size of the French MBA market has been the decision, taken at most business schools, to use the English language for teaching.

"With zero French, you can come and do an MBA," explains Valerie Gauthier, MBA associate dean at HEC, where MBA students have a choice between studying exclusively in English or following a bilingual route. Of the 127 who started the HEC course last month, well over half chose the monolingual option.

However, HEC also prides itself on its insistence that all students pick up at least some of the local language. For the first four months, non-French speakers are obliged to take three hours a week in the language. Many voluntarily continue with the study.

At ICN Nancy, the decision was taken three years ago to go for English. Stephane Boiteux, manager of the executive MBA programmes at the graduate business school, says this was for two reasons.

"We wanted to be able to welcome students from outside France. But also, we wanted to be able to expose our students to the experience of teachers from all over the world."

In fact, like almost all business schools these days, French institutions maintain and exploit links with establishments across the world. The international mix of every MBA cohort ensures that wide experience, cultural and professional, is brought into every lecture and group session. The mix of lecturers is similarly broad.

Many French schools have also laid down foundations abroad. INSEAD has its own site now, in Singapore, and several schools are offering their branded MBA to students studying thousands of miles away.

Grenoble has set up a network of off-site campuses in Russia, Moldova, Malta and China, enabling students to be taught by Grenoble faculty members, and receive an MBA with the same title as those based in the French Alps.

Grenoble's recently appointed MBA programme director, Allison Vodden, is keen to bind these students into the Grenoble scene more closely. To that end, for a week next spring, students from every site, will gather in Grenoble, and enjoy a week of studying together and networking.

Although the French market has certainly not been immune to the global downturn in popularity of the MBA, the virtues of crossing the Channel, for British students, seem to be shining through.

Philip Cacouris, who grew up and worked in the UK, has recently graduated from HEC.

"The teaching gave me a perspective beyond the Anglo-Saxon business model," he explains. "And the bilingual programme also gave me the chance to bring my French up to a professional level."

So, despite a frisson of friction in Anglo-French relations this year, over the EU constitution and the 2012 Olympics, relations on the business education front are healthy.