Liberte, inegalite, fraternite: Is French elitism holding the country back?

The alumni of France's 'Grandes Écoles' have long had a stranglehold on the country’s top jobs. And that, according to a new book, is why the country’s in an economic hole

John Lichfield
Friday 17 May 2013 21:49 BST
President Hollande's staff in the Elysee Palace are also graduates of 'elite' schools such as the École Nationale d’Administration
President Hollande's staff in the Elysee Palace are also graduates of 'elite' schools such as the École Nationale d’Administration (AP)

Imagine a large, potentially flourishing country which is held back by its own selfish, self-perpetuating elite.

Might that country be Britain, with its class system, old-boy-network and private schools? Or Russia, with its corrupt, crony-capitalism? Or China, with its hermetically sealed party oligarchy?

Non, non et non, according to Peter Gumbel, a British writer and university lecturer based in Paris. The country in question is France, the self-proclaimed inventor of liberty and equality, the republic which, in theory, executed its permanent elite over two centuries ago.

In 2010, Mr Gumbel, angered some French people, and delighted others, with a trenchant assault on France’s education system. His new book published in French and English this week – “France’s got talent. The woeful consequence’s of French elitism” – kicks out at an even bigger hornets’ nest.

In the name of “meritocracy” and “equality”, he says, France has built a system for selecting and formatting its political, administrative and business leaders which makes “Eton and Oxbridge” or the “Ivy League” look like a utopian experiment in social levelling. The “Grandes Écoles” – elite colleges, devised by Napoleon two centuries ago and re-invented after the Second World War – have become a machine for perpetuating a brilliant but blinkered, often arrogant and frequently incompetent ruling freemasonry.

“It’s a system that is able to produce a tiny number of brilliant and charming men and women who constitute the ruling class. Whether they are competent as leaders is another matter,” Gumbel writes . “The entire selection process leaves the vast majority of the population frustrated, de-motivated or feeling discarded.” In a sense, Mr Gumbel is saying nothing new. For decades, the French themselves have grumbled (as only the French can) about the pernicious stranglehold on government and big business of the products of the Grandes Écoles and especially the so-called “énarques”.

An “énarque” is a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the state officer training college which is the ultimate, exquisitely narrow, pinnacle of the French education system. ENA, which recruits the cream of the graduates from other elite colleges, turns out just over 100 people a year, numbered according to their brilliance. Oxford and Cambridge, by comparison, produce about 6,000 graduates a year. The top 10 pupils in each ENA year or “promotion” are pushed straight into senior jobs posts in the French administration.

“Énarques” you may have heard of include Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (ex-President), Jacques Chirac (ex-President), Lionel Jospin (ex-Prime Minister), Édouard Balladur (ex-PM), Laurent Fabius (ex-PM, now foreign minister), Dominique de Villepin (ex-PM), Ségolène Royal (ex-Presidential candidate) and François Hollande (President of the Republic) The last three were class-mates in the same ENA “promotion” in 1980.

All that is familiar enough in France. However, two aspects of Mr Gumbel’s book are likely to be eye-openers, even for the most cynical of French citizens. The first is his statistical comparison with Britain, which according to French orthodoxy is a country still riven by class distinction and asphyxiated by privilege. Compared to France, he says, Britain in 2013 “almost seems to be a paradise of social equality and diversity”.

In 1974, he says, 62 per cent of top jobs in British government and civil service were held by Oxbridge graduates. By 2007 the percentage had fallen to 42 per cent (and admission to Oxbridge was broader than it was in the 1970s). In 1987, 67 per cent of the bosses of largest 100 UK companies were Oxbridge products. In 2012, the figure was 21 per cent.

And France? Around half the ministers in the present government are products of ENA or another elite institution such as Sciences Po (where Peter Gumbel lectures and used to be communications officer). This is, historically, quite a low figure. But Mr Gumbel points out that over 60 per cent of President Hollande’s immediate staff in the Elysée Palace are graduates of ENA or the most prestigious of Grandes Écoles, Polytechnique (an engineering school where pupils have ceremonial uniforms). This percentage has not changed much in 40 years. Under Nicolas Sarkozy – a sworn enemy of the Grandes Écoles – the percentage fell very slightly to around 55 per cent.

A recent survey found that 84 per cent of the 546 top executives in France’s 40 biggest companies were graduates of a handful of elite colleges. Almost half of them came from three institutions: ENA, Polytechnique and the business school HEC. Does this matter? The system was devised to create an elite: to identify and train the most able minds in France and to project them into the top jobs. The Grandes Écoles and ENA are, the apologists say, doing what they are meant to do.

Gumbel’s demolishes this argument in two ways. First, he points out, that the Grandes Écoles system, although torturously difficult to enter and to survive, has tended to favour young people from well-off or well-educated families. Secondly, he points out, the traditional system of selection and training in the Grandes Écoles is ludicrously rigid and narrow, favouring abstraction or deep analysis rather than creativity or imagination.

“The system turns out people who are brilliant at writing long, beautifully argued reports on what should or should not be done,” Mr Gumbel told The Independent. “It is hopeless at training people who know how to make things happen. Hence, many of the problems of France today.”

Towards the end of his book, Gumbel acknowledges that the system is changing. The elite institutions are sending students abroad and welcoming foreign students to France. The Grandes Écoles are increasingly recruiting students who have not been through the grind of two year “preparatory classes”, which favour better off candidates.

Bright French students are shunning the system in droves and applying for university in Britain. (The bulk of the French university system is a disgrace, largely because money and official respect is channelled to the upper tier of elite institutions.)

Ten or 20 years from now, those changes might start to make a difference, Gumbel says. In the meantime, the power of the Grandes Écoles, and the stultifying effect of their freemasonry of old boys and girls, endures. “I am no French basher,” Gumbel said. “France has many things going for it. But we are also at a time when many people in France are turning to the Far Right and Far Left because they are exasperated with the performance of what they see as a self-perpetuating elite. I hope my book will help to crystallise a debate on how France could be more democratic, and more imaginative, in training its leaders”.

The book is available in French as Elite Academy, published by Denoel, €17 (£14). In English, it can be bought as an e-book through Amazon.

Elitist, the French?

A study of the background of the top 10 people in the Socialist French government shows that “only” five out of 10 went to “elitist” institutions.

The stranglehold of graduates of elite colleges is, on the whole, receding at ministerial level.

But according to Peter Gumbel, the educational elite occupy 60 per cent of the top posts in François Hollande’s Elysee Palace (compared to 55 per cent under Nicolas Sarkozy).

They also fill the top jobs in most ministries and occupy 80 per cent of senior posts in the leading 40 French companies.

1. François Hollande, 59, President of the Republic

Hollande is a triple product of the machinery for training a French elite. He attended not only Institut d’études Politiques (Science Po) but also the elite civil service college, Ecole Nationale d’ Administration (ENA) and the top business school, HEC.

2. Jean-Marc Ayrault, 63, Prime Minister

Ayrault rose through provincial politics as Mayor of Nantes. He is said to blame a snobbish conspiracy of the “elite” for his many difficulties as PM. He studied German at Nantes University.

3. Laurent Fabius, 66, Foreign Minister

Fabius, like Hollande, went to three elite institutions: École Normale Supérieure; Science Po: and ENA. He graduated near the top of his ENA class and became the youngest ever French Prime Minister at 37 in 1984.

4. Pierre Moscovici, 55, Finance Minister

Another classic product of the system. Studied at Science Po and then ENA. Graduated near the top of the class and was catapulted into the official audit agency, the Cour des Comptes.

5. Jean-Yves Le Drian, 65, Defence Minister

A rare working class Socialist minister, Le Drian, came up through student and provincial politics in Brittany. He studied at the University of Rennes.

6. Christiane Taubira, 60, Justice Minister

Another minister from a modest background, Born in French Guyana, Ms Taubira was one of five children of an unmarried home-help. After taking degrees from several non-elite French universities, she became a professor of economics.

7. Manuel Valls, 50, Interior Minister

The rising star of the French centre left, Spanish-born Valls is a graduate of grass-roots and student politics rather than the finishing schools of the elite. He studied history at the Sorbonne in Paris, which has not been an elite institution for a century.

8. Arnaud Montebourg, 50, Industry Minister

Montebourg, the self-appointed left-wing conscience of the government, studied at Science Po but failed the entrance exam for ENA. He was a lawyer before entering politics.

9. Vincent Peillon, 52, Education Minister

An intermittent student of philosophy at the Sorbonne, he became a steward on trains before training as a teacher and then entering politics.

10. Marisol Touraine, 54, Health Minister

Studied at Science Po and Harvard. Became a defence ministry official and then part of the prime ministerial staff before entering provincial politics.


Richard Descoings: The man who tried, and failed, to change the system

Peter Gumbel’s dissection of the French elite contains a gripping “book within a book”, his first-hand account of the rise and fall of a man who tried to change the system but imploded because he was, himself, a product of its worst excesses.

Richard Descoings was director of the Institut d’études Politiques de Paris, or Science Po, from 1996 until his sudden death in New York in April last year. He was celebrated, and idolised by some, for his successful efforts to recruit bright students from poor, multiracial suburbs to France’s premier political studies college.

A few months before his death, it emerged that Descoings, a close friend of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, was paying himself a large salary and bonuses by dubious legal means. Gumbel, a British journalist turned author and lecturer, reveals In his book that the amounts paid to Descoings were even higher than previously reported – more than €500,000 a year, twice the President’s salary.

He also describes the chaotic and autocratic Science Po management in the Descoings era. Although openly gay, Descoings was married and his wife was employed by Science Po on a large salary and bonuses. His sudden death, at the age of 54, was found to be “natural” and brought on by “hypertension”.

“Descoings did exactly the things needed to break open the elite system of education in France. I admired him very much at first,” Gumbel told The Independent. “But he was like a figure in a Shakespearean tragedy. He also had the faults – the arrogance, the sense of impunity, the ruthless willingness to exploit a web of connections – which came from being part of the system he said he despised.”

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