Here's a little quiz to test your knowledge of French society. What do both front-runners in this year's presidential campaign have in common with the CEOs of many of France's biggest companies? What attribute is shared by the leader of the Socialist Party and the head of the employers' organization? What's the link between two Presidents of the Fifth Republic, six of its last eight Prime Ministers, half the ministers in the current government and the overwhelming majority of France's top civil servants?
The answer: they all went to the same school France's Ecole Nationale d'Administration, or ENA. Ever since it was set up by General de Gaulle in 1945, ENA has been the magic portal through which the country's élite have passed into France's corridors of political and corporate power.
But in recent years, the old ENA magic has been wearing thin. When standing for election in 1995, Jacques Chirac railed repeatedly against "the dictatorship of a technocratic élite" a thinly-disguised dig at the school he attended from 1957 to 1959. During legislative elections two years later, Chirac's Prime Minister Alain Juppé and current Socialist Finance Minister Laurent Fabius both called for the school's abolition. Needless to say, the two men are ex-students themselves. Between 1995 and 1999, applications for ENA's prestigious external entrance exam declined by 30%. Though the school's administrators insist that's simply a return to the levels of 10 years ago, it's hard not to detect an element of wishful thinking. At the Institute of Political Studies the elite Paris university known as Sciences-Po that supplies 90% of the external exam's successful candidates the number of students opting for the program preparing for it has dwindled from 1,000 a decade ago to just 200 today.
ENA has always been much more than just a school to train civil servants. It was the symbol of a system that forged and then governed post-war France. Today as the country grudgingly comes to terms with the European Union, globalization and the rigors of worldwide economic competition that system looks like a thing of the past. Is it the end of the line for ENA too?
Back in 1945 when the college was founded, France was still a predominantly rural society that was physically shattered by war and morally crippled by the alacrity with which its state apparatus had collaborated with the Nazi occupiers. ENA was the keystone of the Gaullist renaissance. The school would provide a new administrative backbone, capable of putting the country back on its feet. "After the war, the state modernized the economy in an authoritarian and unilateral way," says Luc Rouban, research director at the Center for the Study of French Politics in Paris. "The Gaullist idea was that the state should be above political parties. Top civil servants used to believe they were in charge of society, because the political class was weak and private entrepreneurs were insignificant."
That belief was reinforced by the French state's dominant role in the economy. By the end of 1948, the SNCF, EDF, Renault, Air France and the main banks and insurance companies were all nationalized. The job prospects for a bright civil servant seemed unlimited. "The importance of public companies in the French economy encouraged civil servants to move into business," explains an ENA graduate who is director of a multi-national investment bank in Paris. "Typically, after 10 or 15 years in public administration they were 'helicoptered' into a top management post at a publicly-owned company before moving on to the private sector."
But the successive privatizations that began in the late 1980s have transformed France's economic landscape. Now the private sector is where the action is. Though ENA graduates remain prominent in French business look at Louis Schweitzer at Renault, Jean-Marie Messier at Vivendi Universal or Michel Pébereau at BNP Paribas modern-day alumni are abandoning the civil service ever earlier to head directly for the private sector. "People used to go to ENA for a career, hoping they'd later be made an ambassador and then chairman of a nationalized bank," says Jacques Attali, an economist and ex-president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. "But today, if you stay in the civil service beyond the age of 35, you're a loser. The number of [civil service] jobs available for the over-35s has declined enormously because of privatization and the diminished role of the state."
Although ENA is identified with this career shift from public administration into business known in the trade as pantouflage it has always been the prerogative of a privileged minority among the school's students. For ENA caters to two clearly defined groups. The overwhelming majority of 2001's intake of 120 students was drawn from two separate entrance exams: one "external" for graduate students under the age of 28 and one "internal" for low-ranking civil servants under 47. Once admitted, both groups follow the same course of studies. In their first year they do two internships, one in a préfecture, the state's local office in each of the country's départements, and one in an embassy. The second year focuses on administrative law, economy and finance, public management and international relations, all dealt with in the form of case studies. Exams at the end of the second year classify the students into a ranking from one to 120, with the best-placed getting first pick of that year's available posts. Typically, hot-shot young graduates from the "external" intake do best in the final exams and opt for the administrative fast track of the grands corps d'etat, the three élite branches of the French civil service that guarantee the best career prospects. Members of the grands corps used to be shunted off into business after a career in public administration. Today, private firms want to groom their executives in-house, so recruits tend to leave the civil service after five or 10 years.
A position in the private sector "only ever concerned the top 10 or 20% of each year's graduates," says the investment banker. "The rest spent their entire career in the civil service. The ones who made the move were more or less the same people who did best in the final ranking."
ENA's claims to be a practical training ground for administrative all-rounders, capable of working in any government department, are undermined by this division into the chosen few who will select between the best that the public and private sectors have to offer and the rest, those slated for a more mundane career in the civil service. "ENA isn't a school, it's a selection procedure," insists Jacques Attali. "If you're ranked in the top 15, your life will be totally different than if you're number 16 or below. The function of ENA is simply to arrive at this final 15."
ENA is faithful to the idea that underlies all French schooling: successive selection within universally available public education is the fairest way of forming an élite. Indeed, one of de Gaulle's aims when he founded the school was to break the upper-middle classes' monopoly on the higher echelons of the civil service by imposing unified training for the entire administration and doing away with the individual entrance exams for each branch, which had become breeding grounds for nepotism. But like the rest of France's public school system, ENA is no longer generating the egalitarianism and social mobility that had been its raison d'�tre. Today only 9% of students come from working-class backgrounds, compared with 29% in 1950.
"French élitism was based on the idea that all schools and teachers have the same values and that all students have the same sociocultural background," says Richard Descoings, president of Paris' Institute of Political Studies. "The problem is that it's no longer true. For a long time ENA was the summit of that system, but today the system has collapsed." The spread of enterprise culture and international competition have put new emphasis on performance criteria, discrediting the old French tradition of early selection. "The system assumed that if you're good at 25, you'll be good for all eternity," Descoings adds. "But in France, as elsewhere, you can be very brilliant at 20 or 25 and a bad professional at 40."
As a symbol of post-war Gaullist France, ENA today finds itself caught in a pincer movement. In a multicultural society where the state has ceded ground to private actors, its fast track to success looks anachronistic. Meanwhile, the upper-middle classes, which form its prime constituency, are abandoning the civil service in favor of the higher wages and more attractive career prospects offered by the private sector. "Private business and private management techniques have gained new legitimacy," says Rouban at the Center for the Study of French Politics. "Society has become pluralistic, political power is more fragmented and Europe is exerting a growing influence. The result is a question mark over the role of élites in France and over the role of ENA and the civil service in particular."
ENA itself is working hard to answer the questions about its future. Inside its Strasbourg headquarters a former prison whose forecourt used to be a graveyard assistant director of studies Renaud Dorandeu explains how the school is focusing on the tasks facing today's civil servants. Three years ago ENA introduced a public management section, which aims to present the managerial and negotiation techniques specific to public administration. "For years, the rising tide of neo-liberalism maintained that private sector solutions could be imported into the public sphere," says Dorandeu. "It's not true. The state's role today is setting up partnerships with other actors and managing change." The staff emphasizes the practical administrative skills the school offers young graduates and the continuing education it provides for existing civil servants. "ENA's refocusing on its original vocation to train high-ranking civil servants," says one recent graduate. "But the problem is the final ranking. It's a block that prevents the curriculum from developing." Peter Boxer, on a one-year secondment from Britain's Foreign Office, is less diplomatic: "It's a very traditional system," he says. "We Brits aren't great at facing up to modern challenges, but the French are worse."
Yet the days of ENA's monopoly over a uniform national élite are over. Like dying stars, the school's prominent ex-students still shine in the national firmament, but their brilliance is fading. And though it may not be to every old Jacobin's taste, it's the graduates of business schools and MBA programs who are now burning brightest.