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Changes must be made at French finishing school that creates out-of-touch elite

The Ecole Nationale d'Administration (National School of Administration) in Strasbourg, eastern France. Picture: PATRICK HERTZOG/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

To its supporters, it is a school without equal. To its critics it is a cabal that rules the land. JASON WALSH reports on plans to reform France’s controversial École national d’administration.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe holds a sweater of ENA’s 2017-18 promotion “Clemenceau” he was offered by ENA’s director after a speech. Photo: FREDERICK FLORIN/AFP via Getty Images – Credit: AFP via Getty Images

It is a familiar refrain heard around the world, where people feel their political elites are too divorced from everyday life… They don’t look or sound like us.

This charge has particular potency in France – where republican and egalitarian rhetoric frequently rubs up against a wellspring of class resentment – as well as a particular focus. Because the apparently identikit apparatchiks who make up the country’s elite tend to be graduates of the very same establishment: the National School of Administration, or ENA.

The institution is among France’s most prestigious of the so-called grandes écoles, higher education establishments that exist outside the university system, and is seen as the most powerful.

The ENA selects and undertakes initial training of senior officials and over the years has produced presidents and prime ministers of France, dozens of government ministers, various heads of state in Africa, leaders of EU institutions and other transnational bodies, and stuffed the ranks of the civil service.

More vocational than scholarly, it is notoriously tough and in terms of producing candidates for the very top jobs in the state (four of the past six presidents are graduates, even though only 3% of MPs went there) it makes Oxford University’s PPE course (philosophy, politics and economics) look decidedly ‘bog standard’.

The ENA’s success in stuffing the higher echelons of the civil service and politics, however, have made it a target for criticism and that familiar refrain that it represents an out-of-touch elite, producing graduates who do not look or sound like the rest of the country.

It is an attack that was articulated by the gilets jaunes protestors, but one that has since been taken up by politicians, including, ironically, many énarques, as ENA graduates are known.

Édouard Philippe, prime minister and himself an énarque, last week ordered the development of a five-point reform plan for the school based on an official report from lawyer and another alumnus Frédéric Thiriez. The aim was “social and geographic diversification,” Philippe said. The report makes a full 42 recommendations for changes in how the school recruits and operates.

The move is a shift away from the more radical plans of another énarque, president Emmanuel Macron, who announced last year that the ENA would be abolished, saying the appointment of civil servants should be “based on their merit and not on their social or family background”. He also wanted to abolish the “protection for life” enjoyed by civil servants.

Notably, Macron’s idea of closing down the school came after five months of protest by the gilets jaunes movement and was a clear signal to indicate that his plans to reform France aren’t just for train drivers and pensioners. By slapping down the ENA, Macron was telegraphing a message: I’m coming for the elite, too.

Indeed, his government is doing that – but not quite as radically as he initially outlined. Instead, the school will survive, but become the EAP, or School of Public Administration.

The reformed institution is likely to come under the authority of the University of Paris, meaning it would for the first time be entitled to offer doctoral degrees.

A “special competition” will be developed to widen access and, reports conservative daily Le Figaro, “positive discrimination” will be enacted.

Despite its elitist reputation, the ENA was founded on entirely meritocratic ideals. It was established in 1945 by Charles de Gaulle in order to democratise access to the highest echelons of the traditionally closed-shop civil service. Originally located in Paris, it has now been almost completely relocated to Strasbourg to emphasise its European character, although it still maintains a campus in the French capital.

Enormously competitive – and lucrative for graduates – it quickly became almost impossible to enter for anyone but the scions of the wealthy and privately educated.

Chief among the complaints to be addressed is the so-called “exit ranking”. Upon finishing, students are ranked according to results and then matched up with open positions in the civil service. This rigid pecking order can define people’s entire careers. The top 15 students, known as la botte, ‘the bunch’, have until now been guaranteed direct access to positions in the most prestigious arms of the state.

It means that over the years, the ENA has created a quite unique phenomenon for France. Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans, university professor and president of the European Group of Public Administration, said: “In most European countries, civil servants, even the highest, are white-collar workers who do not enjoy any particular social prestige [but] in France to become an énarque is to have a status which guarantees a place in the high reaches of the civil service.”

Sociologist Luc Rouban said the school had to open up access to the civil service to the middle class. “We want to break with the current system, which was becoming a machine for recruiting a versatile elite whose senior level was increasingly oriented towards the private sector, especially the banks,” he said.

The system has its defenders, however – or at least those who want to protect the ENA from the most radical designs of its detractors. Daniel Keller, a businessman and France’s most senior freemason, himself an énarque, has described the reform plans as an attempt to “do equality on the cheap”. Keller, who heads up the school’s alumni association, said there was need for reform but that it should mean students from poor families and the regions were as well prepared as Parisians when it came to taking the school’s entrance exams.

Channelling Winston Churchill, Keller defended the exit ranking system: “Ranking is the worst system, apart from all of the others,” he said.

Efforts to stand up for the school, however, haven’t been helped by recent allegations of discrimination and harassment made by undergraduates. The claims surfaced in an internal report, obtained by Le Monde, which was compiled by “about 20 students” (from a class of 81). The authors also claim that the school does not fully prepare students for the workplace, with issues of sexual harassment not properly addressed, leaving them “without any tools to deal with these situations” when they go on work placements.

The school may have been saved by the guillotine but, thanks to its most senior alumni, it seems certain that major changes are on their way. Whether they will be enough to satisfy the gilets jaunes is quite another matter.

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