When two of France's business schools merged recently they claimed they were creating the largest cross-border management school in Europe. The EAP European School of Management, in Paris, joined forces with the nearby Ecole SupÃ©rieure de Commerce to offer an international full-time MBA. The publicity machine boasts that students come from 25 different countries and spend time in several capital cities on their year-long course.
This emphasis on a global outlook is replicated among the other top French institutions - the so-called Grandes Ecoles of the Gallic system. Their prestigious reputation in the domestic market, and their relationship with the country's chambers of commerce, have led in the past to a focus on national intake, but the emphasis is currently shifting.
"The French have understood that they could be locked into a parochial attitude unless they develop an international image," admits Ken Casler, in charge of publicising the newly merged EAP/ESCP. "We're all chasing the same professors, and we know it's important to be in the global market."
The school is one of seven, including INSEAD, accredited by the Association of MBAs in France. All schools compete strongly with one another and are now waking up to the need to attract students from across the globe. Four of the seven run courses in English, and the others describe themselves as bilingual. Judith Ryder, who directs the MBA programme at EM Lyon, acknowledges that the number of British students who look further afield than INSEAD is small.
"We don't really see ourselves in competition with INSEAD," she says. "Our main rivals are the other Grandes Ecoles here, and we are all doubling our efforts to attract more non-French people."
Around 30 per cent of the current intake is from other countries, and Lyon also operates an exchange programme with Cranfield University. Students who take part in the exchange can qualify from both institutions. "Coming here demonstrates an originality which employers like," she argues. "We had one British student who had far more job offers than her colleagues because employers were impressed by her open view of continental Europe."
British students who do opt to cross the channel for their MBA have often worked in the country, and appreciate the benefits of a French qualification when it comes to applying for their next job. Others, like Tim O'Connor, chose a French school after looking at several international options.
"The INSEADs and London Business Schools of this world shouldn't rest on their laurels," she argues. "I chose the Theseus Institute of International Management near Nice, because it focused on training managers in a technology context - and is truly international." As an IT consultant who had worked for Coopers and Lybrand in Paris as well as London, Tim wanted a course which was closely tailored to his own professional needs, rather than one offering general management skills. The move seems to have paid off. The software technology company he founded with fellow alumni is now worth $60m. His next enterprise, Vertical*I, is an internet-based new business incubator in Silicon Valley.
Theseus, which has only been established 11 years, can boast a large contingent of women students - as many as 42 per cent. But the HEC School of Management near Versailles, considered the flagship of French business education, is not far behind with around 30 per cent women. Numbers of international students signing up for the bilingual MBA have risen by 30 per cent in the last three years, but British students are a still a small contingent.
Theseus's marketing director, Pantea Denoyelle, hopes this will change. "A lot of English students stay in the UK, so we see them as a target market in future." With INSEAD still able to take the pick of the British applicants, she is keen to project a different image. "We want people to think of us as truly European in our approach. In comparison, we see INSEAD as more American in its teaching methods."
Few of INSEAD's French neighbours will admit to envying its ability to lure British students across the channel. Schools like the merged EAP- ESCP argue that their smaller student numbers - 55 compared to the INSEAD's 600 - allows them to offer a more personal, flexible service. Students get a whistlestop tour of the continent and California, with trips to Berlin, Brussels, and Silicon Valley, which are all scheduled within the 12-month course.
"We try to put the Silicon Valley spirit into everything we do," says the Dean, Dr Daniel Rouach. Like his competitors, he is keen to trumpet the benefits of the entrepreneurial approach. But students are also initiated into the mysteries of France's "old economy". "I am starting to organise visits to French fashion houses and vineyards, to give them a taste of French culture," he says.
A stone's throw away on the Left Bank in Paris, one of the country's oldest Grandes Ecoles, Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chausees (ENPC), is singing the same tune.
Here students can design their own study programme, are taught largely by visiting professors from across the globe and carry out company projects abroad.
The temptations of French cuisine may be a minor factor in deciding where to do your MBA. But if cost is a consideration, it is certainly worth noting that the French schools are reasonably priced. The 16-month course at HEC costs around £14,000, compared to £18,500 at Cranfield, or £18,000 at INSEAD. That is before living costs are taken into account, though British students are benefiting from a good rate of exchange at the moment. And if you are searching for examples of alumni achievement to guide you in your choice of business school, look no further than the Millennium Dome. Its new Chief Executive, Pierre Yves Gerbeau, has only just graduated from the one-year bilingual MBA at Sciences Po - France's version of the LSE in Paris.Reuse content