- - Monday, April 12, 2021

PARIS — French resistance hero Charles de Gaulle, at the end of World War II, created a rigorously meritocratic graduate school for public administration that was designed, he said, to break the power of the elites in France.

After the defeat and destruction of the war, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) was built to create a fresh start for the government and for France. Over time, it would play a central role in creating France’s leadership core.

ENA has become a finishing school for the bright, powerful and well-connected that spits out presidents, business leaders and mandarin bureaucrats at the top echelons of French society. It is uniquely part of France’s state-centered system.

Now, 75 years later, another French leader, himself a 2004 graduate of ENA, wants to shut down the prestigious school. The reason: to build a fairer, more equal society.

“We have built centers of excellence which attract top-performing students but often by being unfair, by hurting others,” said President Emmanuel Macron, speaking to civil servants last week. “We have given up on building careers in a transparent and meritocratic way. We must radically change the way we recruit our public servants.

“I know what I’m talking about. I was part of it,” he added.

ENA is a French “grande ecole,” elite higher education institutions that are connected to, but very much separate from, the nation’s public university system. Its alumni include four of the past 12 presidents, eight prime ministers and two current ministers. Others who have studied there include leaders of French industry, such as a founding father of aeronautical firm Airbus and a former chairman of Air France/KLM. Graduates are jokingly referred to as “enarques,” alumni from a training academy for the ruling class in the heart of a democracy.

It’s that cachet that has made the Strasbourg-based school a target of envy and ire, both on the left and on the right.

In the beginning decades, ENA wasn’t a bastion of privilege. More than half of its student body came from working-class families. That segment now is less than 6%, according to French media.

The school takes fewer than 100 students a year. The government pays for tuition and a monthly stipend. After graduation, the top students are usually fast-tracked to high-ranking civil servant jobs in the administration.

“What was meant to be a bastion of republican meritocracy rapidly became its opposite: a cradle for the reproduction of social elites,” Annabelle Allouch, a sociologist at the University of Picardie Jules Verne, told the French news website France24.com.

Mr. Macron said he wants to replace ENA with an “Institute of Public Service” at the campus. It will train students in public administration but require graduates to gain on-the-job experience in lower-level jobs and often outside Paris before advancing on merit. This is in line with Mr. Macron’s goal to create a more simple, transparent, efficient and responsive civil service.

The president announced his plan to shutter the school after making pledges during the violent yellow vest protests that shook the country beginning in late 2018, when thousands marched on the streets of Paris and other cities demanding economic and social justice. What started as a protest against a gas tax increase morphed into a larger attack on elite privileges and the dominance of Paris over the country’s rural areas.

In a gesture to the protesters, an abashed Mr. Macron traveled the country in 2019 to talk with French voters about issues important to them. After this “great national debate,” he said ENA should be shuttered because it no longer reflects French social values.

Political considerations

Abolishing the school will bring a major change to the country’s self-image, but more than a little political calculation is at work as well. Analysts say Mr. Macron’s move is calculated to win far-right support as he faces a tricky reelection campaign in 2022. His chief rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is likely to run again, and populist themes could dominate the debate.

“There are sections of French society who … detest power, not just that of Emmanuel Macron but the power of elites,” said political analyst Guillaume Bigot, managing director of the IPAG business school in Paris. “I think Macron is very well aware of it and has decided to play this card.”

Mr. Bigot attributes the electoral troubles for the centrist in part to the yellow vest protests and an attempt to reform the bloated pension system — another sacred cow in France. Proposals to reduce pension spending set off huge strikes in late 2019 that crippled the public transportation system for weeks.

The COVID-19 pandemic is playing a role, too.

“The president managed to get some support for having resisted drastic restrictions during the health crisis,” the analyst said. “But he knows very well that people are at the end of their ropes. It’s the entire ruling class that’s being rejected by the French.”

That’s because of a growing divide between the so-called elites and everyone else. For a large segment of the population, opportunities for advancement have declined over the past few decades, Francois Bayrou, the leader of the centrist political party the Democratic Movement (MoDem), said in a recent television interview.

“There is the absolute rupture between the base of society — those who work, those who are retired, those who are unemployed, [those] who occupy all the lower positions at a company, the young, the students — and those at the summit of society,” he said. “I am not sure that the ‘social elevator’ works today as it worked for me. Today things are much more stuck.”

Even members of the upper classes acknowledge that something has to change.

“We did very well. Life has been very good for many people of my generation,” said Bernhard, 66, a retired Parisian who declined to be quoted by his full name. “But now, only the wealthy can count on doing OK. The next generations are not [inheriting] the opportunities and the security we had.”

Mr. Macron understands this, he added. Closing ENA “is maybe just a gesture, but it does show that Macron realizes something has to change.”

Daniel Keller, president of ENA’s alumni association, however, said Mr. Macron is aiming at the wrong target.

“Eliminating ENA won’t change anything. This reform has been criticized by both left-wing and right-wing politicians because many say it’s the government and the way it works, not ENA, that we need to reform,” he said. “ENA graduates are not responsible for the government’s dysfunction.”

He said France’s governing crisis includes the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, including shortages in protective equipment, tests and intensive care beds. France, meanwhile, is enduring its third lockdown since March 2020 because of a surge in COVID-19 cases.

“The current health crisis in France, where we’ll soon reach 100,000 deaths, has shown we haven’t been able to deal with it. The government is facing criticism, and perhaps the president decided to sacrifice ENA in the current context,” he said. “This is just for show. We have entered an election period, and the government needs results.”

Mr. Bigot said the school’s lofty reputation may have contributed to its undoing. Over the years, he said, it has come to undermine the “French idea of public interest.”

“This is above private interests, economic interests, regional and local interests,” he said. “The government’s problem is that at ENA now, they teach students to detest the public interest.”

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