President Emmanuel Macron announced the abolition of France’s esteemed Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) on Thursday, to be replaced by a new Institute for Public Service. Charles de Gaulle founded ENA as a training ground for French leaders at the end of World War II, envisioning a meritocratic postwar system that would offer opportunities for all. But the “grande école” eventually became known as an elite institution that churned out presidents, premiers and captains of industry destined to fill France’s top ranks.
Almost two years have gone by since Macron first floated plans to get rid of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the tiny but prestigious elite school he attended, along with both his prime ministers and three of his presidential predecessors.
The French president had vowed to abolish a school that had become a symbol of privilege and inequality, promising to “build something that works better”. At the time, Macron’s critics denounced a cynical move to sacrifice a symbol of French elitism without actually addressing the deep-rooted inequities and social resentments that were fuelling the Yellow Vest protests challenging his presidency.
Criticism of ENA is as old as the school itself – in fact, it even predates its establishment.
In his seminal work “Strange Defeat”, written before his execution by a Nazi firing squad, French historian Marc Bloch warned against establishing a single facility to train the country’s leaders, instead arguing that French universities – with a plurality of approaches – were better suited to training public leaders.
But Charles de Gaulle had other plans. France’s Resistance hero founded the school in 1945 with the specific aim of training a postwar administrative elite from across all regions and social classes. He chose to place it not in Paris but in Strasbourg, the Alsatian capital France had twice recovered from German annexation.
‘Control the state’
“De Gaulle was determined to assert the state’s control over the training of top civil servants,” says Annabelle Allouch, a sociologist at the University of Amiens. The idea was also to weed out those who had collaborated with the Nazi-allied Vichy regime, replacing them with a new administration loyal to De Gaulle.
To tap the best candidates from across France, the postwar government set up a series of regional schools modelled on Sciences-Po in Paris. Long the top school for French politicians, Sciences-Po in turn became the university of choice for those hoping to enter ENA for post-graduate studies.
“When you’re talking about ENA you’re talking about access to the upper echelons of the French state,” Allouch explains. “That’s why ENA and Sciences-Po are constantly in the news: if you control those schools, you control access to the state.”
To this day, the ENA’s highest-ranking graduates are able to cherry pick the top jobs in the most prestigious state bodies. Controversially, they’re increasingly likely to land plum jobs at France’s biggest corporations too.
“Enarques”, as the school’s graduates are known, are invariably associated with the term “pantouflage”, referring to the revolving door between the public and private sectors. The growing tendency to move back and forth between the power offered by public life and the lucrative opportunities of private industry has only deepened the perception of an incestuous elite network at the top that remains out of reach for many.
An alarming ‘uniformity of views’
Such perceptions are compounded by the school’s failure to deliver on its founding premise: advancing people based only on talent, regardless of background. Instead, the ENA and other elite schools spawned what the influential sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described as a “state nobility” that replaced the old aristocracies.
“What was meant to be a bastion of Republican meritocracy rapidly became its opposite: a cradle for the reproduction of social elites,” says Allouch.
Annual reports published by the ENA’s own examiners revealed their dismay at the lack of diversity – whether social, geographic or intellectual – among its graduates. A 2017 report stressed the “uniformity of views expressed by candidates” and their inability to “develop a personal vision and reflection on the subject”.
In a scathing critique published by investigative website Mediapart, prominent journalist Laurent Mauduis said the ENA “has for many years trained arrogant and contemptuous accountants who are in no way representative of the diversity and plurality of the country”.
A broken social ladder
While the ENA’s fame makes it an obvious target, educational sociologists have shown that the school in Strasbourg is merely the pinnacle of a system that produces inequalities at every level, from nursery school to the very top. Inequality is also at the heart of France’s two-tiered higher education system, which tends to channel students from affluent backgrounds towards elite grandes écoles while the rest are left to attend state universities.
“The ENA, and to a lesser extent Sciences-Po, are symbols of these inequalities,” says Allouch. “The reason they attract so much attention is that they legitimise French elites. Graduating from the ENA is a form of induction: It means one’s place at the pinnacle of society has been approved by a supposedly meritocratic system that recognises talent and is blind to origin.”
In a speech earlier this year, Macron acknowledged the hurdles in France’s system, acknowledging that the social ladder had become “more difficult to climb than 50 years ago”. He also promised to expand programmes to ensure children from disadvantaged backgrounds also have a shot at entering the grandes écoles.
“No child in our Republic should ever say, ‘That is not for me’,” he said.
Restoring the credibility of French meritocracy is of paramount importance to the French president, particularly given the importance he has given to those who “at the head of the rope” – a climbing metaphor he famously used to refer to business leaders pulling up the country.
“Macron is not the only one to focus on the premiers de cordées, it’s an old French habit,” says Allouch. “But he’s looking in the wrong place. Universities are the engines of social mobility – not the elite schools and, least of all, the ENA.”