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Caste out

By Jo Johnson

Published: December 17 2004 18:20 | Last updated: December 17 2004 18:20

The words carved deep into the stone gates of 13 Rue de l’Universite in Paris will soon be all that remains of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. In the pale sunlight of a November afternoon, students who would once have become the future leaders of the nation gossip despondently in an almost deserted cafeteria. The legendary school that was once an indispensable rite of passage for all who aspired to power in post-war France has become an anachronistic embarrassment. A constant reminder of the failures of the French ruling class, it is no longer welcome in the capital. The reign of the enarques is coming to an end.

In January, the fabled training ground of the French political and business elite will be compelled to quit the Left Bank, the plush district by the Seine that is a byword for metropolitan sophistication, for the provincial torpor of Alsace. ENA’s Parisian premises will be sold and the school that honed the minds of all French presidents young enough to attend it, from Valery Giscard d’Estaing to Jacques Chirac, will be relocated in its entirety to its Strasbourg campus, a former prison. There, four hours by train from Paris, the alma mater of nine government ministers, six of the last nine prime ministers and many of the captains of finance and industry will continue along the glidepath to banality.

Set back from the road in an 18th-century building behind the Boulevard Saint-Germain, ENA hardly looks the stuff of controversy. Sixty years old this year, it is in fact probably the most ruthlessly effective old boys’ network in Europe. The closely guarded alumni handbook, which includes the telephone numbers and addresses of all the 4,500 enarques still alive, right up to the presidents of the Republic, shows that the caste pervades every corner of the French Republic. The graduates of no other school in the world, with the exception of the ubiquitous alumni of Tokyo University, monopolise positions of power as comprehensively as the enarques do in France.

Today, however, ENA is in crisis. It is no longer needed for the task for which it was founded - to provide the mandarins to run a dirigiste economy - and is struggling to find a role for itself as France faces globalisation. “I sometimes say they should just close ENA down altogether so that people remember only the good things about it,” says Alain Minc, who was top of his ENA class in 1975, and is now, as chairman of Le Monde, a perfect example of the way the enarque diaspora has colonised positions of power in French society. “I don’t criticise ENA as it was 30 years ago,” he says. “It did the job it was meant to do brilliantly, but today, in a global economy, the ENA training is embarrassingly provincial.”

At one level, ENA’s departure is a symbolic moment in the war that has pitted Paris against the provinces since the Jacobins opposed the Girondins during the French Revolution. Parisians, as Francois Mitterrand once said, have a tendency to “think the provinces are Kamchatka or the Kalahari” and in spite of attempts to boost the status of the regions, decrease congestion in the capital and shift jobs to the provinces, France remains the most centralised country in Europe.

For Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the first non-enarque prime minister in more than a decade, dispatching ENA to Strasbourg was irresistible: the former senator for Poitou-Charentes has made decentralisation the ideological leitmotif of his premiership. Yet at a deeper level, the move reflects a sense that France no longer knows what to do with a school that many suspect is in part responsible for the failure to solve the country’s most intractable problems. Frustration with the ENA is symptomatic of a wider anger at the failures of the elite to find bold cures to the cancers eating away at France’s vitality. The fact that public finances are heading towards the abyss, unemployment has been hovering around the 10 per cent mark for as long as anyone can remember, two million Muslims live a segregated existence in urban ghettoes, businesses are stifled by taxation and excessive regulation and corruption, cynicism and cronyism are feeding off an overweight state are just a few symptoms of a profound crisis of leadership.

”The enarques have ruined France,” says Concetta Lanciaux, executive vice-president for synergies and adviser to the chairman at LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury goods empire founded by Bernard Arnault, a fierce critic of the stifling influence of the state on the economy. “The tragedy of this country is that ENA recruits the best of each generation. They go there and then they go and work for the government, depriving the productive sector of their potential. What’s even worse is that while they are at ENA, they receive a training that then leaves them completely unsuited for leadership roles in the global economy: they gain no international exposure and undertake practically no internships in industry.”

Over coffee in his office in Strasbourg, Antoine Durrleman, a former enarque appointed director of the school two years ago, says ENA has been a victim of its success. “Because some of our students have left the civil service, to work in public or private businesses, or have successfully entered into politics, enarques are identified as those who ‘run France’ in the collective imagination. If something goes wrong somewhere it must be traceable to an enarque.” Ten years ago, he says, politicians such as Edith Cresson, a Socialist prime minister, saw moving the school to Strasbourg as a way of punishing it. Today, he says, taking it out of the inward-looking Parisian microcosm “is not just logical from an organisational point of view, it is a positive affirmation of ENA’s international orientation and European identity”.

General Charles de Gaulle signed the decree creating ENA on October 9 1945. Although seen as “typically French” by Anglo-Saxon liberals, it was in large part British in inspiration. In exile in London during the second world war, de Gaulle had been impressed by the planners behind Britain’s wartime command economy. Once installed at the head of the newly liberated France’s provisional government, he gave a 33-year-old Michel Debre, who would later write the 1958 Constitution instituting the existing Fifth Republic, responsibility for administrative reform. So critical was the school’s mission that it was attached directly to the prime minister’s office, rather than the ministry for education.

With much of the pre-war civil service tainted by Vichyite collaboration and stifled by a culture of nepotism dating back to the ancien regime, the Gaullist vision was radical and refreshing. ENA would train a pure new caste of public servant drawn from the brightest students in the land. Everything about ENA was designed to appeal to a new post-war obsession with meritocracy. It would sit at the apex of the system of grandes ecoles, the name given to the French equivalent of the Ivy League, and would act as a turbo-charged finishing school for the best of the grandes ecoles graduates.

Success in the ENA entry examination remains the ultimate academic accolade in France. In a country in which class is largely determined by education rather than birth or wealth, the enarques sit at the summit of the French social hierarchy and have, until recently, been treated with the cowering deference once the reserve of the old aristocracy. Competition to get into ENA is so fierce as to make Oxbridge entry exams appear a cakewalk. Those who set their heart on getting there have to sacrifice their early twenties, so broad-ranging is the syllabus. They must also reconcile themselves to the likelihood of failure: only five per cent of candidates will win one of the 100-120 places the school offers each year.

Students who survive the three-month entry process, which culminates in a public 45-minute grand oral exam, are immediately given civil servant status. The cost of their studies will be met by the government in return for 10 years of public service. About half ENA’s students will be in their early twenties, recruited direct from higher education. Another 50 or so will be drawn from a separate competition for experienced civil servants and a dozen or so will come from the private sector. These pools of candidates, who in the 2003 intake ranged in age from 22 to 47, then come together to form one class, known as a Promotion, for which they then choose a symbolic name. ENA has no permanent faculty; its classes are taught almost entirely by civil servants.

For all its renown, it is extraordinary how many claim to have learnt nothing at ENA. Ghislaine Ottenheimer, author of Les Intouchables, a new book about the civil service mafia, says the only skill ENA develops is the art of synthesising information. “The classic teaching method is for a fonctionnaire, normally one who studied himself at the school 20 years earlier, to arrive for a course and hand out a black box containing hundreds of photocopied documents containing all the received wisdom on a subject,” she says. “A student’s grade will essentially depend on who synthesises this information most elegantly. It’s an incredibly sterile process and discourages all imagination and innovative responses to problems. Enarques are doing the same thing decade after decade.”

A recurring criticism is that ENA is painfully out of touch with contemporary France. The first year is spent in internships, either at a prefecture in the provinces or at an embassy. The second year is spent in the classroom in Paris and Strasbourg. Contact with the world of research is minimal. Many students find the months spent listening to fonctionnaires a mind-numbing experience. “We learn a lot about how to write notes for the minister of finance,” says Laurence Assous, a 29-year-old student at ENA. “It’s good to be taught by the top civil servants, but perhaps not to be taught by them all the time. They tend to incarnate the opinion of the administration and to say that things should be done in a certain way because that’s how they learnt to do it.”

It is a sign of the self-confidence of the institution that the 27-month programme provides its graduates with no diploma. Instead, ENA’s brutal, winner-takes-all system bestows all the spoils on those who finish in the top 15 positions in a final examination. This determines the enarque career trajectory for the next 40 years. Students choose from available jobs according to their ranking. Only those who finish in “la botte”, as the top 15 places are known in ENA jargon, have any hope of joining the three elite Grands Corps - the Inspection des Finances, the Cour des Comptes and the Conseil d’Etat - the inter-departmental bodies that control public finances, audit the books of the state sector and advise government on its legislative programme.

Not all enarques are equal. Those who become inspecteurs des finances, such as Alain Juppe, the centre-right politician once described by Chirac as “the best among us”, are the gods of the permanent bureaucracy. Anyone who assumes that Lionel Jospin (who was ranked towards the bottom of the Promotion Stendhal and went to the foreign ministry) is on a par with Chirac (who finished in the top 10 of the Promotion Vauban and chose the Cour des Comptes) or his rival Laurent Fabius (who finished first in the Promotion Francois Rabelais, was appointed an inspecteur des finances and became prime minister in his mid-30s) is missing a vital clue to French politics. Those who miss “la botte” may rise to become prefects and ambassadors, but they will have to play in the second division for the rest of their careers. Some who finish with a low ranking may simply prefer to repay their fees.

Philippe Altuzarra, who graduated from ENA in 1982 and is now the co-head of Goldman Sachs in France, is a classic example of the French meritocratic system working at its best. Sitting at what used to be Mitterrand’s favourite table in a corner at Le Divellec, the two Michelin-starred fish restaurant, the managing director of the US investment bank says: “People tend to be dismissive of ENA, but it meant a huge amount to me. I am of relatively modest origin in that I come from a small town in the southwest of France. Neither my father nor my mother has le bac and I’d certainly never set eyes on an enarque before my early 20s. ENA meant that straight away I had access to the top... The French business community is wired in such a way that you can instantly read the system if you have been to this school.”

Alain Minc of Le Monde is another example of the power of an ENA education. He graduated top of his 114-strong Promotion Leon Blum, beating a young Pascal Lamy, recently the EU trade commissioner, and Martine Aubry-Delors, the leading socialist politician who was then famous only for being the daughter of Jacques Delors, the former EU Commission president. The person who finishes first at ENA has a good claim, at least on paper, to being the smartest person of his age in the country and is accorded the title of “Major”. “I was a perfect beneficiary of the system,” Minc says. “My parents were Polish-Jewish immigrants who arrived in France in 1931. The fact that I was Major meant that in one day I could switch from being the son of immigrants to being at the centre of the French establishment.”

He continues: “Of course, I was not just any Major - I had the best results of any student at ENA since 1945. That gave me a massive boost. In one second I gained a career advantage over my peers of 15 years.” In a perfect illustration of the extraordinary responsibilities thrust on young shoulders, Minc was made finance director of Saint Gobain, one of France’s leading industrial groups, at the age of 29. “I had absolutely no managerial experience,” he admits during an interview in his office on the Avenue George V, yards from the Champs Elysees. “It was typically French. It was the education of the prince and it made me the perfect product of the French melting pot, which is now disappearing. Such opportunities are rarely available for the beurs [slang for north African immigrants] today.”

Few people believe ENA today is providing either an “ascenseur social” to those outside the ranks of the privileged or training that is likely to generate new solutions for age-old problems. A system that churns out a boundlessly confident elite, neatly ranked at graduation in order of brilliance, does not lend itself either to humility or to heterodox thought. “In theory, ENA is a meritocracy, but in reality it has tended to be a self-perpetuating elite,” admits Altuzarra. “I’m a great believer that organisations derive a great advantage and enormous energy from having a diverse workforce and there is no doubt that this has contributed to ENA becoming a very powerful force for inertia in French society.”

There are numerous critics of the ranking system. Each year, students demand it be abandoned, saying it discourages creative thinking, puts a premium on conformism and makes it hard to pursue a vocation in certain departments. “If you choose to go to the ministry of social affairs, people would assume you finished at the bottom of the class and this is off-putting for many people,” says current student Assous. Yves-Thibault de Silguy, an enarque former EU commissioner who recently produced an official report on reform of ENA, heeded their views, but found his recommendations on this central point ignored. The Grands Corps feel there is no better way to ensure they get the pick of the best every year.

The exclusivity of ENA is hard to comprehend. In its entire existence, it has produced fewer graduates than Oxford and Cambridge churn out in a single academic year. It is at the same time more and less meritocratic than Oxbridge and the Ivy League. On the one hand, in one generation, a bright French student by virtue of his education alone can become a fully paid-up member of the governing class. On the other, once someone is a member of the enarque club, its mutual support system means he or she will never be turfed out, whatever their disgrace. This has, not surprisingly, encouraged a cynicism about the ruling class that is reflected in the sharply rising abstention rate in elections.

ENA may not suffer from Oxbridge’s public school bias, but its claims to be a meritocratic melting pot are undermined by the eye-popping percentage of enarques drawn from one quintessentially Parisian institution, the Institut des Etudes Politiques. Better known as Sciences-Po, the IEP, the French equivalent of the London School of Economics, in turn draws its students mostly from the posh lycees of Paris. Last year, students from Sciences-Po won 80 per cent of places at ENA offered to non-civil servants, a situation which, says Thomas Wanecq, a 28-year-old non-Sciences-Po enarque, “represents a massive loss of understanding and experience for the nation”.

A few minutes later, Laurence Cytermann, son of an enarque and a graduate of Sciences-Po, sits down at our table in the cafeteria. “I have always known that ENA existed,” Cytermann says with a shrug. “Studying here was always an option for me.” Given their unwavering belief in their superiority over those not formed in the ENA mould, it is perhaps not surprising that the school’s graduates are viewed as a proud, inbred caste of privileged young Parisians convinced of their destiny to rule the country - exactly the kind of socio-professional heredity that ENA was created to dispel.

The stereotypical image of the enarque - at once haughty, spoilt and eggheadish - has made the school a natural target. It sustained its first big assault in 1991 when Cresson, who notoriously trusted her dentist more than the enarques in her office, attempted to “democratise” it by carving the campus in two and shunting half of its activities off to Strasbourg. This prompted a legal challenge from the school’s alumni that was upheld in the Conseil d’Etat, the legislative antechamber staffed predominantly by enarques, but was eventually forced through by the government. The upheaval irritated an elite already sceptical of a mere business school graduate’s credentials to be prime minister and after less than a year at Matignon, Cresson was dispatched to the European Commission.

Cresson’s downfall has not deterred other outsiders from taking up the baton. Pierre Lellouche, a member of parliament for the ruling centre-right UMP, is an inveterate campaigner for the abolition of a school he sees as “an anachronism in a France confronted by globalisation”. The enarques, he admits, were indispensable when France needed a caste of Brahmins to direct economic revival during the halcyon period known as the trente glorieuses, the 30 boom years that followed the war and ended with the oil shocks. But today, he is a co-signatory of numerous bills proposing to do away with ENA on the grounds that “it has become one of the principal obstacles to the modernisation of this country.”

The semi-presidential system of government introduced by General de Gaulle in 1958 strengthened the executive and reduced the powers of political parties and parliament. In a planned economy, the status and influence of the technocrats soared. Many entered politics, safe in the knowledge they were guaranteed their jobs back if they were not re-elected. Especially when the left is in power, the Assemblee Nationale is swamped by civil servants. Even today, with a centre-right majority, there are more than 70 former civil servants in parliament. “France,” Lellouche recently told L’Express magazine, “holds the world record for the number of bureaucrats in parliament and in government. How on earth can a senior civil servant, who has suddenly become a minister, set about reforming that branch of the public administration in which he has built his career?”

Critics of ENA point to the humiliating decision of Christian Sautter, an enarque finance minister in the socialist government of Lionel Jospin, to abandon a reform of the ministry in which he had built his career. More generally, with one in five French workers employed by the state, the public sector vote is one that politicians ignore at their peril. Once a vehicle for the post-war re-organisation of France, the technocracy has become a root cause of immobilisme and a compelling explanation for the apparent unreformability of a state that spends the equivalent of 55 per cent of GDP each year. If the task of a civil service is to connect political vision with economic and social reality, the enarques have let the country down. Many believe France’s best hope lies with the dynamic Nicolas Sarkozy, a former finance minister with his eye on the presidency in 2007. He has a legal rather than an enarque training.

”ENA’s golden age is over,” says Marc Ladreit de Lacharriere, chairman of Fimalac, owner of the Fitch IBCA credit rating agency, who graduated from ENA in 1970. As globalisation shrinks the state, ENA is opening up a narrower range of opportunities. Privatisation has steadily reduced the number of top jobs within the direct gift of the state, while the shortcomings of ENA training have reduced the attraction of enarques in the private sector. The process of pantouflage, by which enarques quit the public sector for high-ranking jobs in business, has also suffered a lasting setback from the spectacular managerial failures at two flagships of French capitalism - Vivendi Universal and France Telecom - both of which were brought to the brink of bankruptcy by their enarque chief executives.

Bertrand Richard, managing director in France of Korn Ferry, the headhunting group, says faith in the mythical powers of enarques is on the wane and so is their appeal to employers. “Fifteen years ago, clients would tell me that a post absolutely had to be filled with an enarque. Today that is no longer true. Enarques in public service used to hire other enarques because it was the easiest way of recruiting bright people. They were also in strong demand from auto-didacts in the private sector because it was vital to have a strong point of contact with an all-powerful state. Today, that’s obviously less important and for most private sector companies the most important external point of contact for a chief executive is with the markets and with international investors.”

An ENA education no longer provides a short cut to the top of the business world. Some of today’s students at the school may still hope to leverage the network to their advantage, but as a group they are more committed to a genuine career in public service than any of their recent predecessors. “ENA is becoming much more banal, really just a school for fonctionnaires,” says Renaud Dutreil, minister for the civil service, in an interview. Even though he is a classic example of the brilliant enarque who abandons the civil service for a high-flying political career - after graduating second in his class in 1989, he was elected to parliament at the age of 35 - he says he is the last of the breed. “Over the next 50 years ENA will not have nearly as important a role in France as it has done over the last 50.”

Jo Johnson is an FT correspondent in Paris

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