On Thursday 8 April, Emmanuel Macron announced the closure of the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration, France’s elite school for turning out senior civil servants and politicians. The president’s announcement sounded familiar – he had already pledged to reform the ENA, a school renowned for its conservatism and aversion to change, back in 2019 – but this time it’s final: Macron said that the time had come to abolish an institution that is widely regarded as a symbol of elitism and inequality.
With just a year until the next presidential election, Macron is neck and neck in the polls with Marine Le Pen. The ENA abolition looks, therefore, as if it’s part of a strategy to reconnect with “the people”. It’s easy to forget, given the pandemic, but before France entered lockdown in March 2020, it had been experiencing the most sustained anti-elite movement for generations in the form of the gilets jaunes (yellow vests) protests. Macron has certainly has not forgotten this.
The president does not want to dispense with the idea of an elite school altogether but to build something that allegedly works better. A new school called the Institut du Service Public, a kind of “public management school”, will replace the ENA. Unsurprisingly, Jean-Louis Debré, once a close ally of Jacques Chirac, declared that this was a “populist” measure (by which he meant it was pandering to public opinion).
His father, Michel Debré, the first of Charles de Gaulle’s prime ministers, founded the ENA in 1945. Its aim was to train students drawn from all walks of life through entrance exams so jobs in the French civil service could be assigned on merit rather than wealth and personal background.
In reality, the school turned out to be a close-knit club for the upper-class, rather than a force for democratisation. The elitist recruitment pattern has worsened over the years: by 2014, 70% of students came from the upper classes, as opposed to 45% in the 1950s. ENA graduates – called énarques – land the best jobs in the civil service, but also in business and frontline politics. Alumni include several presidents, the past eight prime ministers and current CEOs of top business and banking firms. There is even a term, pantouflage (from the word for slippers), referring to the practice by which civil servants find lucrative work in the private sector – the énarques are emblematic of this tendency, which accentuates the public perception of an incestuous old boys’ network.
One may think of énarques as the French counterparts of Oxford PPE graduates. Insofar as they are both effectively finishing schools for the ruling class, the comparison makes sense, although the specifics are quite different. In the UK, private education and elite universities are a fact of life. In France, the ideology of republicanism – which comes from the French Revolution – insists on the notion of equality of treatment for all and on the delivery of state-of-the-art public services owned and run by the state. The ENA is a public institution whose funding almost wholly comes from the state. This makes the way it favours students with high economic and cultural capital not just embarrassing, but a seeming contradiction of the state’s republican ideals.
To get in, candidates spend a year prior to applying to the school in a classe préparatoire, an extremely demanding course. The written exam (concours externe) tests a wide range of subjects and disciplines. Only a minority of candidates make it to the second round, which includes oral exams that essentially test their elocutionary skills. Then comes the dreaded grand oral, a long ordeal in front of a jury during which candidates are asked all kinds of puzzling and provocative questions designed to test their capacity to think on the spot.
It all has the effect of giving richer candidates who have the right social skills the edge over candidates from more modest backgrounds. Once in the ENA, it is essential to graduate in the top 10%, if graduates want to be able to choose from the most prestigious roles in the French state. The rest may be assigned to mediocre positions. Former graduates often complain about the teaching, which has a reputation for being dull and conservative, and describe the institution as a bastion of upper-class snobbery.
Back in 2006, Nicolas Sarkozy (who did not attend the ENA) mocked the “sadist or idiot” who had seen fit to include exam questions for ENA candidates about Madame de la Fayette’s Princess of Clèves, a 17th-century novel. Sarkozy’s mockery alluded to the idea that énarques are trained to discuss subjects as varied as politics, economics, history, arts or literature but can do so in only a superficial manner.
The modernisation of the ENA should therefore involve a comprehensive overhaul of the school’s recruitment process and exam procedures, as well as a dramatic modernisation of the curriculum so it reflects the challenges of the real world. But does Macron really want this? Only he knows. Would it appease the yellow vests and people angered by his economic policies? Though the reform may be welcome and necessary, it will probably not make the slightest difference to them: énarques and ordinary citizens would carry on living on different planets.