A student rebel, Emmanuel Macron has turned into a presidential revolutionary. On April 25, in response to the gilets jaunes (yellow jackets) protesters and their rage against an out-of-touch elite, Macron announced dissolution of France’s famous Ecole National d’Administration (ENA).
“Makeshift repairs”, the president declared, won’t do: “If you keep the same structures, habits are just too strong,” he said. It was the most controversial and spectacular of all announcements made to mark the end of his months-long “great national debate”. At a stroke, Macron gave in to populist demand, and sent both his own alma mater and a symbol of modern France to the guillotine.
When Charles de Gaulle founded ENA in 1945 from the ashes of Nazi occupation and the second world war, the Resistance leader explicitly sought a meritocratic antidote to the chronic cronyism of the pre-war era. In his memoirs, le general wrote that his ambition then was “to make recruitment and training of the main servants of the state more rational and homogeneous”. ENA was to turn out an impartial, unified army of administrators, motivated by the “noble” calling of public service, to rebuild a powerful, stable France.
But amid today’s angry, ruthless populism, the very concept of an elite is denounced on the streets and roundabouts of France. Far from admired as a dedicated public servant, the enarque embodies the perceived arrogance and disconnect of the governing class, skilled at devising technocratic policies and blind to their effect on ordinary people. It was in car-dependent France profonde, after all, far from the bike-sharing quarters of Paris, that the government’s planned raising of the carbon tax first provoked the gilets jaunes. The solution, one of them said, was to “get rid of the enarques” and put some “real people” in government instead. With their calculators and spreadsheets, ENA graduates have replaced the silk-stockinged nobility of pre-revolutionary France as the public enemy of choice.
The reality of course is more complex, and more nuanced, than Macron is letting on. The president knows full well that France will still want a top administration college, even if he closes the one with the now-damaged acronym. He also knows that the problem is not the concept of a high-flying school itself, but recruitment to and from it. Over the years, partly because applicants from bookish families better survive the marathon years of preparation required to get in, ENA has admitted fewer, not more, pupils from poor backgrounds. In the quarter-century after 1985, the share of pupils at the school whose fathers were blue-collar workers fell from 10 percent to 6 percent. Broadening access cannot be ENA’s problem alone. It also means ensuring that more school pupils from modest backgrounds apply to the classes preparatoires, which train applicants to France’s grandes ecoles. This is the baffling parallel world of elite higher education that leads (among other things) to ENA, confuses the uninitiated, and crowns the university system.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)