President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced the closure of France’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the training ground for French leaders founded by Charles de Gaulle at the end of World War II. Envisioned as the pinnacle of a meritocratic system offering opportunities for all, the graduate school had increasingly become a symbol of elitism and entrenched privilege, churning out presidents, premiers and captains of industry destined to fill France’s top ranks.
Macron, who graduated from the school in 2004, told senior civil servants he was going to "abolish the ENA" and replace it with a new institution called the "Public Service Institute". He said the new school would continue to train graduates for senior positions in the public sector, but with a mission to introduce more diversity.
The move comes two years after Macron first floated plans to get rid of the tiny but hugely influential school that both his prime ministers and three of his presidential predecessors also attended. His critics at the time had denounced a cynical move to sacrifice a symbol of French elitism without actually addressing the deep-rooted inequities and social resentments that fuelled the Yellow Vest insurgency 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 had 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 Picardie. 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 also set up a series of regional colleges 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.
The latter's success in producing highly-qualified public administrators, most of whom went on to hold senior jobs in ministries or public bodies, soon spawned copycat institutions in other countries, including Russia.
“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, whose research focuses on efforts to increase diversity in higher education.
According to France's Observatory of Inequalities, students whose parents hold high-earning professional jobs are 12 times more likely to enter the school than those from poorer backgrounds.
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 Mauduit 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 recognised 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 special importance to a president who has stressed the role of the premiers de cordées (those “at the head of the rope”) – a climbing metaphor he used to refer to business leaders pulling up the rest of 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 real engines of social mobility – not the elite schools and, least of all, the ENA.”