The school is known as ENA, from the full French name, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, and those who emerge with the coveted qualification are called énarques, a synonym for high ability, intellectual rigour and magical management competence if you’re a fan. Critics would be more likely to suggest that énarques, as well as being unquestionably bright, are also snobs, spoiled brats, pampered rich kids from Paris. And thus, a tad weak on understanding life in, say, a disadvantaged suburb or a rural village without a school, bakery, bus service or doctor.
In fact, if last year’s output is taken as typical, the school authorities say 56 percent of students were from the provinces, 26 percent of them were poor enough to benefit from the very generous scholarship system, and 36 percent had grandparents who were either farmers, working-class or small business people.
Unfortunately, a report from the National Social Research Centre indicates that the proportion of ENA students whose fathers were senior managers went from 45 percent in the ‘60s to 70 percent in the current decade.
Yellow Vests don't like it
Condemned by some Yellow Vest protestors as a symbol of the distant technocratic élite which rules France, the school also has its defenders, admittedly most of them former students.
The debate seems to crystalise around the question of whether it is a good idea to select a small group of intellectual and social high-flyers, teach them to be ace managers, and then turn them loose in crucial positions in ministries at the age of 25, with nothing but a proven capacity for hard work in an academic background.
Today’s French dailies review the question.
Left-leaning Libération headlines its analysis “ENA faces its final exams”, and the paper is broadly in favour of abolition, provided it is part of an overhaul of the entire system of higher education in France. With a view to improving the output in terms of less uniformly formatted graduates.
Right-wing Le Figaro gives pride of place to those graduates of the famous school who say they will refuse to see their establishment turned into a black sheep by a bunch of louts in high-visibility jackets.
As Le Figaro analyses the situation, it is not just the school which is under attack, but the entire social system which it supports and by which it is, in turn, supported.
Catholic La Croix wonders what would happen after the fancy school was closed. The republic will still need top managers, trained administrators, articulate politicians. They’ll still, broadly, emerge from the same social strata as the currently do.
As La Croix sees things, ENA is not the problem. The school is one symptom of a frozen administrative system inherited from the ‘40s. More flexibility, more internal promotion on proven competence, less learning might lead to greater efficiency, according to the Catholic daily.
Le Monde, cautious because the only basis for the claim that the president plans to do away with his own school is a leaked version of the televised speech Emmanuel Macron was due to give earlier this week, cancelled in the wake of the Notre-Dame blaze. That speech will have to be re-worked before it eventually becomes a real expression of the French leader’s vision of life inside a Yellow Vest.
Don't blame Napoléon!
The school was founded in 1945 by then president Charles de Gaulle who wanted to make sure that the French civil service would be run by skilled, well-trained individuals rather than by somebody’s idiot cousin.
It seems to have worked.
Former students had a disconcerting ability to get to the top in whatever field they chose . . . chaps like Giscard, Chirac, Hollande and Macron himself became French presidents. Nine of the 18 French prime ministers since 1974 have been products of this French answer to the finishing school. French civil servants were able to put the fear of God into their generally untrained international colleagues in the early days of the European Common Market.
For now, the question of the future remains open.
But nobody is suggesting that abolishing the Ecole Nationale d’Administration will suddenly, or even eventually, make France a more egalitarian place.
For that, President Macron will have to do better. Much better. As I'm sure his teachers used to say in the old days at ENA when they were handing back the homework.