The bicentenaries of two of France's most prestigious grandes ecoles, l'Ecole Polytechnique last spring and Ulm (l'Ecole Normale Superieure) this autumn, have been the occasion of much celebration and minimal soul-searching.
Only a few years ago, the top rung of the French education system appeared under threat. The Socialist government wanted to broaden access and trim the prepas, or preparatory classes, that form the bedrock of the system.
Industry and business complained that the schools were not producing enough engineers and managers of the right sort.
The growing importance of international academic links raised questions about the incongruity of the French ecoles, with their atypical five-year diplomas, their separation from universities, their relative lack of research.
But the bicentenary celebrations revealed just how well the elite system has steered back into smooth waters, unscathed and ready for a third century's service.
Not only are the two-year preparatory classes safe from renewed attempts to trim them to one, this year sees the business school prepas bumped up to two years to match the rest.
The number of engineering graduates has indeed doubled, from 14,000 in 1990 to ,000 last July, but the grandest of the grandes ecoles have remained as exclusive as before.Polytechnique has inched up from an intake of 360 students to just over 400.
Meanwhile, the higher education ministry tries to map the maze of little grandes ecoles which have mushroomed all over the country. Alternative means of access to the ecoles have been set up alongside the prepas, allowing university graduates and working adults to sit entrance exams.
But still the prepas at just three Paris lycees sweep the board for the grandest schools, filling a third of the places in mathematics at Ulm.
The gap is widening dramatically between the mass higher education provided in universities, bursting at the seams, and the ever more elite ecoles. Thirty years ago, the ecoles made up a fifth of the higher education system --they now account for less than 3 per cent. While teacher-student ratios at university drop further below western averages, the ecoles have been hiring more teachers and resident researchers.
Although some voices warn that increasing disparity and unequal access could herald crisis, the ecoles are generally seen as islands of guaranteed academic excellence, resisting the tidal wave of mass higher education.
Christian Baudelot, whose research highlights the immense importance of academic family background for ecole normale entrance, has declared "the unequal access to knowledge which is developing is sowing the seeds of violence".
Yet in spite of the presence of a number of family "dynasties" at Ulm's celebrations, the school's director, Etienne Guyon, argues that it does fulfil its role as an instrument of social advancement. "The numbers from non-academic backgrounds are greater than they appear in Baudelot's study; it's probably still not enough but we do provide that opportunity."
"It is a family affair," contradicted former student Paul Bady, "My father, my brother, myself and my son have been here. It's a meritocracy in the classical Chinese tradition."
Was this socially unfair? "The system is efficient and economical. These families know what is needed to get in. My father made me work at my Latin and Greek," he replied.
The system is protected, according to sociologist Monique de Saint Martin, by the tiny size of the schools, the old tie network and the hurdle of the prepas.
"It is the prepas that defines the grande ecole. Although a streak of originality is needed to come out top, the prepas turn out standardised products," she said."They isolate the students, keep them in the world of secondary school, cram them and make them highly competitive." Prepas means at least two years spent studying day and night with performance continually assessed and put in class ranking. In mathematics and physics, the prestige subjects where competition is at its fiercest, girls have dropped out dramatically since the women's Ecole Normal Superieure at S vres joined Ulm in 1986.
"Before then, it was true the standard was lower for the girls' entry examination, but they caught up and had comparable careers afterwards," said Francoise Imbert, member of a CNRS team currently researching the impact of the Svres merger.
"France used to have eminent women mathematicians and scientists. With so few women students at Ulm now, the worry is they will disappear -- as professionals and role models," she added.
Mr Guyon says the entry examination is not the root of the problem, but admits the prepas system may not be right for girls.
"They are more mature than boys and perhaps not suited to the artificial nature of the exercise and very narrow spirit of competition in prepas," he commented.
While girls make up 20 per cent of students in middle-ranking engineering schools, there are under 10 per cent at Polytechnique, less still in science subjects at Ulm. In the literary prepas, which more girls chose, the competition is even more severe, with only a hundred or so places a year for 4,000 candidates.
Ironically, girls are so successful in the business prepas, where they make up 45 per cent of candidates, that the top school, HEC, Hautes Etudes Commerciales, is widely believed to operate an informal quota to ensure 70 per cent of its places go to boys.
"Masculinity is a hallmark of exclusivity. France is hostile to the idea of quotas for women, but here is a case of a de facto quota for men," notes Mme Imbert.
Polytechnique is currently going through a loss of popularity, measured in the number of candidates who pass both its examination and that of Ulm and then chose Ulm.
Last year, 32 of 36 students who passed both chose Ulm. No woman who passed both has chosen Polytechnique since 1991. Such news sends shivers down the spines of former graduates who have become captains of industry and could well be traded in for an Ecole des Mines graduate if that school is now deemed top.
"Polytechnique is in decline; whereas the traditional bourgeoisie used to despise business schools, they would now as readily see their sons go to HEC or ENA, which trains top civil servants, as to Polytechnique," explains Mme de Saint Martin. Ulm also went through a period of decline, when ENA attracted its candidates and Latin and Greek were swopped for business studies.
But mass higher education has opened up academic career opportunities again -- the traditional outlet of Ulm -- and as the world of business is looking less golden, Ulm has bounced back.
Many smaller business schools are now losing out to university management courses. Some families are less ready to invest money in a private school if job prospects appear doubtful.
"Overcrowded universities mean many bourgeois families want an ecole at all costs, even an obscure one, while those who really understand the system know the top university courses can be better," said Mme de Saint Martin.
So the system resists the winds of change. The ecoles have modernised and broadened their spectrum of courses, acutely aware that they have to work at staying on top.
While university students protest against overcrowding, against youth employment schemes below the minimum wage, the ecole students, drawing their 6,000 francs a month net of board and lodging, know that their future is secured on a bedrockof elitism unlikely to be challenged.
The French media may periodically bewail the fact that French ecoles do not come up with as many Nobel prizes as Oxbridge or other elite institutions, but the family dynasties, the cramming, the hurdle of prepas, have not had their day yet.