France’s president responded to the gilets jaunesmovement with a surprise plan to abolish the grande école ENA, reigniting debate about the country’s intensely hierarchical higher education system. John Morgan explores what lies behind the proposal and what it says about the role of exclusive institutions in a populist, anti-elitist age
The gilets jaunes movement is often seen as expressing the anger of low-paid workers who have suffered the effects of globalisation while the wealthy reaped the benefits; the anger of those in small-town and rural “peripheral France” who have been excluded from metropolitan economic success. That description is too simplistic for some. But what is clear is that the movement’s rampages down the Champs-Élysées may have achieved, rather by accident, a concrete impact on the highest echelons of French society: the abolition of the nation’s most famous higher education institution, the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), known for its central role in forming France’s political and business elites.
Following the shock of the gilets jaunes protests, France’s president embarked on a two-month mass public consultation in an attempt to address the concerns underlying the unrest, announcing his response to this Grand Débat in an April press conference at the Élysée Palace. After lamenting that the highest levels of government in France did not reflect society and were “no longer meritocratic” places that allowed someone from a family of workers to reach the “elite of the republic”, Emmanuel Macron made clear that he wanted to supprimer (remove) “among others the ENA” to “build something which works better”.
The abolition of ENA – one of the grandes écoles that crown France’s intensely hierarchical higher education system – has been floated by politicians before. Nevertheless, the move was seen as a surprise coming from Macron, himself an “énarque” (the term combining ENA’s name with “monarque”, widely used as a sardonic comment on the prevalence of its graduates in positions of power).
His ENA plan has been described by The Economist as the most “controversial and spectacular” of all his announcements in response to the Grand Débat, as a surrender “to a populist demand”.
But how radical would the “abolition” of ENA, if it happens, really be? Would it do anything to make French society fairer? Would it open the door to a more sweeping reform of the grandes écolesand French higher education?
As to whether Macron’s plan to abolish ENA has wider relevance for the world of higher education, there is much about the move that does not translate from the French. But what is undoubtedly relevant beyond France is the political context that pressed him into action – intensifying inequality driven by globalisation, potentially impacting on public perceptions of the privileges afforded by elite education institutions.
An understanding of ENA explains much about the social hierarchy of the French higher education system. ENA – whose relocation from Paris to Strasbourg was completed in 2005 – is not a university but rather a civil service college. It was “set up as a school for recruiting an elite” to staff the highest levels of the country’s civil service, says Ezra Suleiman, IBM professor of international studies at Princeton University, a veteran scholar of French hierarchy whose books include Politics, Power, and Bureaucracy in France: The Administrative Elite.
ENA graduates are ranked at the end of their studies. The highest scoring enter the grands corps, the band of grandes écoles graduates who qualify for the most select jobs in the French government.
For members of the grands corps, the “advantages they have are unbelievable”, says Suleiman. He gives the example of Macron’s predecessor as president, François Hollande of the Socialist Party. The mother of Hollande’s children is Ségolène Royal, a former Socialist Party presidential candidate, with whom he attended ENA. Hollande’s first job after ENA was in the prestigious government Court of Auditors, followed by a position as adviser to the president at the time, François Mitterrand. “Imagine the self-image you get from that: you’re entitled to everything,” says Suleiman. “And then [Hollande] became president, which, had he been in a normal class at any [other] school would never have happened. You get rocketed to the top.”
The same applies in business. A 2010 study found that 46 per cent of executives in the 40 leading French companies were from one of the most prestigious grandes écoles: ENA, the École Polytechnique and HEC Paris.
France’s public higher education system is tripartite: vocational and technical education; universities (traditionally non-selective and open to any student who passes their high school baccalauréat general); and grandes écoles (where entry is highly selective, usually requiring a two-year classe préparatoire (known colloquially as “prépas”), themselves selective, followed by a concours entry exam). About 5 per cent of each age cohort graduates from a grand école, which receive about one and a half times the funding per student granted to universities.
Under Macron, reforms have been introduced allowing universities, which teach the bulk of students in higher education, to rank their applicants on the basis of school grades, in an attempt to address startlingly high dropout rates. However, critics – among them high school student protesters – fear that making universities more selective will increase social segregation.
The grandes écoles are “a web”, with ENA simply the most visible and “gilded” part of that network, says Jean-Michel Eymeri-Douzans, a professor of political science at Sciences Po Toulouse and a former vice-rector, who wrote his PhD thesis on the “sociology of government énarques” and who has lectured at ENA. The system of grandes écoles builds on an “extremely selective” secondary school system, offering the final “barrier in a system of barriers” to those from poorer backgrounds, he argues.
Data on the social backgrounds of students reveal a clear class hierarchy between the different elements of the French higher education system. The proportion of students from “unskilled labour backgrounds” in prépas for grandes écoles stood at 6.4 per cent in 2015, compared with 49.5 per cent for those from professional backgrounds, according to Ministry of Education figures. The equivalent figures for universities were 10.8 per cent and 30 per cent; and for university institutes of technology 14.6 per cent and 28.8 per cent.
Although the grandes écoles have gradually become less socially exclusive over time, the richest graduates of these institutions reach higher social echelons than their poorer peers, found a 2018 study by University of Lausanne researchers, based on large-scale data on social background and social destination from the French Labour Forces survey. The study concludes: “Despite a clear equalization trend in access to the highest educational levels in France, educational merit remains better rewarded on the labour market among the better off.”
French higher education has long been underpinned by a deep faith in educational “merit”, a faith invoked by Macron in his speech. This vaunted exam-based, “meritocratic” system is seen in contrast to class-based systems of inherited privilege and is considered part of the egalitarian ideal of the republic.
This philosophy was evident in the foundation of ENA in 1945 under Charles de Gaulle, who was then president. Thierry Rogelet, director of learning at ENA, says the concept behind its creation “was to give access to the highest executive levels of government for everyone”, to end unsystematic variations in recruitment practices across different sections of government. Recruitment to ENA aimed to foster “diversity” by being “based on meritocracy” and exams rather than on personal connections, he adds.
ENA was created by an executive order of government – because de Gaulle realised that passing legislation to create an elite institution might be too controversial to get past the National Assembly, says Suleiman. The nature of ENA’s foundation explains why Macron has the authority to plan its abolition.
Macron has commissioned Frédéric Thiriez, a former lawyer in the government’s Council of State and former president of the French football league, to compile a report on the future of ENA, which is due to be delivered in November. Thiriez is himself – get ready for a shock – an ENA graduate.
Merging ENA with other institutions is said to be among the potential options under consideration.
ENA’s Rogelet says: “We still have students in the school. We will have examinations for the new ones…to come. We will continue all the teaching reforms that were planned [prior to the Macron announcement] until we know what Mr Thiriez’s audit will say.”
ENA’s director, Patrick Gérard, met Thiriez in June and “made some propositions” about the reforms, says Rogelet, who also points out that since changes devised in 2018, recruitment has been “based more on personal capacities than academic knowledge”.
Daniel Keller, president of the ENA alumni association, says the institution is wrongly being held “responsible for all the inequality that exists in the…education system in France”. Macron’s decision stems from a French desire “to abolish the Bastille every 50 years”, he argues. “It’s a very symbolic decision, but it’s not a decision based on very accurate and reasonable analysis.”
After graduating from ENA, Keller worked at the Ministry of the Economy and Finance, then at Renault. He is now director of transformation and operational performance at social insurance company Malakoff Médéric Humanis. “I think ENA is a good thing, like Eton or Oxford in England,” he says. The institution is “a very strong symbol” for France abroad and “a good image for the quality of civil servant education”, he adds.
So what political factors prompted Macron to target ENA?
The abolition of the institution was an idea raised, on a fairly limited scale, by members of the public during the Grand Débat. Eymeri-Douzans says that while those involved in Grand Débatevents in the regions were not the same groups as those who joined the gilets jaunes protests, there were similarities – and he says he can see why they would resent ENA. “Their children or grandchildren have absolutely zero chance to enter the ENA, ever.”
The gilets jaunes movement, Eymeri-Douzans adds, is hostile to representative democracy “because their understanding is that representative democracy has generated a new aristocracy system”. That so many of the elected politicians in France’s representative democracy are ENA graduates appears to those in the gilets jaunes movement “a validation” of that theory, he explains.
Samuel Hayat, a political researcher at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), author of When the Republic Was Revolutionary: Citizenship and Representation in 1848, has written about the gilets jaunes. He says the idea of abolishing ENA “was absent from the movement when it started”, but when Macron “presented it as a response to the gilets jaunes in April, the narrative was largely accepted by journalists”.
Abolishing ENA emerged as a “minor” topic in the gilets jaunes’ “real debate” (a rival to Macron’s) in early 2019, Hayat continues. But their debate contained “not a single proposal concerning the grandes écoles” beyond ENA, he says. Hayat suggests this is evidence that the gilets jaunes movement is “not an anti-elitist movement, in the sense that it does not question institutionalised or traditional social hierarchies”. The movement’s criticism of ENA “is not that it produces higher rank civil servants, but that these servants no longer serve the people”.
Macron’s speech hinted at other motivations for abolishing ENA beyond the gilets jaunes: he talked about wanting civil service training to be more open to the research world, and more international, as well as more integrated with universities. Even as a student at ENA, Macron signed a petition calling for reform of the institution, so he may see the gilets jaunes as offering a convenient pretext. Plus, the abolition of ENA allows him to say he has listened to the public in the Grand Débat and may perhaps slightly diminish his image as a typical énarque and as the “president of the rich”.
But while Macron’s move may be a political calculation and have a limited focus on a civil service training college, there are some who see it as a potential stimulus for more fundamental change.
Frédérique Vidal, France’s minister of higher education, research and innovation, tells Times Higher Education that, at a meeting held in June, she “asked the directors of the most prestigious schools in France to propose concrete solutions” to enhance social diversity. Macron, she says, “asked me to think about all the grandes écoles in France” – although she stresses that work to “democratise” higher education has been a priority throughout her two years in government.
Vidal set out three main guidelines for the directors: “to increase significantly the [proportion] of working-class pupils in their schools” without impacting on “excellence”; to “think about students’ lives” and how those from more deprived backgrounds can be helped with extra classes or housing; and “to look at equal access to jobs” for poorer of students after graduation. The directors have been asked to respond by the end of the year.
The key point is “to have young people coming from working-class [backgrounds] more confident in their ability to join grandes écoles”, says Vidal, former president of the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis.
“Society has changed. In France we have been very proud of our meritocracy model and our concours model. But, nowadays, the problem is that this kind of meritocracy is more and more linked to the capacity to obtain the right information at the right time.” Too much hinges on parents being in the know about access to the most prestigious Paris prépas, Vidal argues.
The belief that it is both possible and just to have an educational “meritocracy” in which advancement is based on individual ability rather than social background is perhaps the greatest obstacle to major reform. That the term “meritocracy” was coined (by Michael Young in The Rise of the Meritocracy) as a satirical concept criticising the social segregation fostered by selective education appears insufficiently understood in France, as elsewhere.
There is “a strong belief” among the upper echelons of society that a grande école education “is about merit and…not about social position”, says Agnès van Zanten, a researcher at Sciences Po in Paris who has authored a significant body of work on the link between social class and education in France.
Gaining entry to these institutions requires a huge amount of work, especially during the prépa stage. So students who get into a grande école “really think they deserve their place”, says van Zanten.
This is echoed by Suleiman: “There is a strong belief among France’s elite that they deserve their position, that ‘we are the best – we passed the exam’.”
This belief was highlighted in a 2014 study, based on interviews with students at the University of Oxford and Sciences Po, traditionally a feeder institution for ENA. The researchers behind the study – from Cardiff University, Oxford and Sciences Po – wanted to see whether these students viewed themselves as more “talented” than students from “non-elite universities”. The researchers found: “The intense educational, cultural and social experiences that studying at elite institutions facilitated was not only used to explain why an Oxbridge or Sciences Po degree is distinctly better than those awarded at other universities, but also to explain why it was legitimate for leading employers to target them above other graduates.”
In June, shortly after Macron’s ENA announcement, there was a small but potentially significant shift on this ground. Sciences Po announced that, as of 2021, it would abolish the written element of the concours entrance exam, taken by slightly more than half of applicants, in an attempt to draw students from a wider range of social backgrounds. Instead, it will look at applicants’ baccalauréat results, examine their record at school and conduct an oral exam. Bruno Retailleau, president of the Senate group for the centre-right Republicans, called Sciences Po’s move a “blow against equal opportunities and meritocracy”.
Frédéric Mion, director of Sciences Po, says the written exams were “a deterrent for students from the lower middle classes” because they were “perceived as something you had to prepare for, and [this] meant, for most parents, paying for private preparation”.
Work on Sciences Po’s admissions reforms began two years ago, long before the Macron ENA plan. But Mion calls the ENA debate a “symbolic [means] to raise the wider issue of inequality: of inequality of access to leading positions in this country, to the elites. So it certainly raises the question of inequalities long before students are in a position to apply to ENA.”
Mion says the grandes écoles are “very much a product of what happens before them: in primary school, in secondary school”.
Could they follow Sciences Po’s lead on admissions reform? Mion points out that Sciences Po admits students directly after school, rather than via prépas. “As long as that system is in place, the grandes écoles have very little leeway in organising their admissions systems differently,” he says.
Overall, despite growing anxiety about the social and political fractures emerging in French society, there appears to be relatively little groundswell behind the idea of fundamental reform to the social hierarchy of higher education.
The left populist party France Unbowed, founded by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has highlighted the gulf between public spending on grandes écoles and on universities, saying it would “integrate” the two sets of institutions to rectify this. That the party came fifth in this year’s European elections suggests that it is some distance from implementing such a plan.
Suleiman argues that French universities have “over the years got a raw deal, partly because of 1968” – when they were the source of student protests. The university system “has not gotten the right support because the elites are from the grandes écoles, so they look down on the universities”, he adds. “They want their children to go to a grande école, not to a university.”
Van Zanten is sceptical about whether Macron’s ENA plan offers any scope for wider change. The grandes écoles are “really very capable of developing a kind of symbolic discourse about equality”. But that equality is conceived not as “raising the level of everyone but [rather as merely] the possibility that there are no social and no financial barriers to going to the top”, she says. Within these institutions and within the government, the concours is still seen widely seen as “a legitimate mode of selection”, she adds.
The teaching unions and the left political parties, which might challenge for fundamental reform, are all “very weak”, van Zanten says.
Eymeri-Douzans says the broader social context makes wider reform urgent. France does not have a “representative [governing] bureaucracy at all” and indeed has never had a theory of one, he says of the failure of national and local government to include representation of those from North African and Caribbean backgrounds, along with those from the France beyond the big cities. He says of the country’s social divisions: “We are dancing on a volcano…But in politics, it’s difficult to address that directly.” For Macron, “using ENA…is way to try to handle this”, but it will not resolve the problem, he adds.
Given the free flow of ENA graduates between the government and corporate sectors, many think it likely that in his plans Macron aims for the private sector to have a greater role in the sort of training provided by the institution.
Jules Naudet, a researcher at the CNRS who has studied social mobility and elites in France, India and the US, says that abolishing ENA “is mainly symbolic and, thus, useless”. He adds: “By tackling the symptoms of structural inequalities rather than their roots, it will mainly enhance the two main [problems with] ENA: its role in reproducing social hierarchy and its role in allowing private [corporate] interests to permeate the top civil service.”
Despite the limited nature of Macron’s action against a civil service training college, the political context that pressed him into action is relevant beyond France. As globalisation, magnified by the legacy of the financial crisis, intensifies inequality, perhaps the ever-growing privileges afforded by elite institutions and socially stratified higher education systems will come under greater question. But so far, this age of populism and “anti-elitism” in the West seems to have prompted remarkably little scrutiny of socially exclusive higher education institutions, and their key role in the formation of political and business elites.
A true “anti-elitism” would involve a thoroughgoing examination of the way companies and public sector organisations recruit for their top jobs, of how they understand talent and of how elite higher education institutions shape this understanding with their selection processes.
Developments in France do not yet offer much of a guide on how to progress, but they do, at least, illustrate the scale of the challenge.