Ena blamed for France's ills

May 23, 1997

The French elections have triggered the customary campaign-time offensive against the most elite of France's elite grandes ecoles, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (Ena).

For its critics and much of public opinion, Ena has come to symbolise all that is wrong with France, while its defenders say it serves as a scapegoat.

The most extreme campaign statement came from former finance minister Alain Madelin, who told a rally: "Ireland has the IRA, Spain has Eta, Italy the Mafia, and France Ena."

Ena's association of past students said it was "stupefied" and expressed confidence that Mr Madelin would withdraw his statement. "Otherwise how could he accept ministerial responsibilities forcing him to work with terrorists and gangsters?" In his first interview after the election was called, prime minister Alain Juppe suggested "replacing with something closer to reality" an Ena that has "aged".

Mr Juppe can be assumed to know what he is talking about: he went to Ena and as prime minister is directly responsible for the school, whose supervision he delegates to the public administration ministry.

Three of his predecessors, Edouard Balladur, Michel Rocard and Laurent Fabius, also went to Ena, as did Philippe Seguin, outgoing speaker of the National Assembly and former president Valery Giscard-d'Estaing.

It was "Enarque" president Jacques Chirac who first inaugurated the anti-Ena mud-slinging during his 1995 campaign.

What at first sight looks like ritual self-flagellation within the caste produced by Ena is seen by many observers as an attempt by politicians to distance themselves from a school that has become the focus of political disaffection, academic criticism and protest by one sector of its students. The concentration of Ena graduates at the centre of power - extraordinary, given that the annual intake barely tops 120 - is not only political but financial.

That concentration, equated firmly by public opinion with an arrogant, technocratic, out-of-touch style of government, has been explored in a number of recent academic studies.

Research findings published by the Ecole Normale Superieure show 90 per cent of Ena's graduate intake come from highly privileged backgrounds, with parents who are typically senior civil servants or company chairmen.

"Ena creates a self-reproducing caste which has completely conquered the key political positions and confiscated the apparatus of the state, making politics very technical with the same approach by left and right. The polls show people are disgusted with politics. The Enarques have professionalised politics which needs new people from different backgrounds," said survey author Christian Baudelot.

In the latest of his frequent media defenses of Ena, its director, Raymond-Francois Le Bris, writes: "Contrary to a widespread belief, fewer than 2 per cent of former students enter political life."

Mr Baudelot said: "That figure is misleading. There are no frontiers between the politicians, senior civil servants and chairmen of big companies who together colonise political life."

In the newly published L'Ena est-elle une business school?, Michel Bauer and Benedicte Bertin-Mourot, researchers from the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, reveal that half of the chairmen of France's top 200 companies are from Ena. "They are everywhere today, heading the Avignon festival, the new national library, the Villa Medicis," Mrs Bertin-Mourot said. "But the attacks on Ena are misguided. There are two Enas, one that turns out 'ordinary' graduates who pursue modest civil service careers.

"The problem is when the others move on from top civil service jobs to politics or business and don't have to leave the corps, which means they run no risks. A British counterpart would have to resign," she said.

Mr Baudelot agrees there are two Enas but insists both are hyper-selective. "It is the most selective school. Most students have already been through the highly selective Sciences-Politiques school and Ena is unique in using a 'grand viva' to select candidates who must shine in the most urbane and polished way."

The viva may not be the only tool for social selection. The school, founded in 1945 to democratise the training of senior civil servants, was hammered last year when it asked candidates what jobs, titles and decorations their spouses, parents and grandparents held.

"Ena brings into broad daylight a system of selection that is generally more hidden," Mr Baudelot, who has often written on the social selection within France's theoretically egalitarian education system, said.

One component of Ena's intake has protested against its system of selection, breaking a taboo and possibly putting careers at risk. In a letter to the prime minister, 48 students complained their training has been "polluted by the final classification" - the exit listing which gives first pick of posts in the highest areas of public office to the students with the highest marks.

The protesters - older, experienced civil servants who have worked their way up - won their places in a second entry examination meant to broaden recruitment. They say the school system discriminates against them and in favour of the elite postgraduate intake.

Only one of the older group got into the top end of this year's exit listing, which is always dominated by the younger cr me de la cr me. It is not their performance in examinations but the much more subjective marks for their traineeships in government departments that scupper their chances.

Senior civil servants privately agree age is crucial at Ena, with eager 23-year-olds picking up more points than forty-somethings who are seen as set in their ways.

The protesters argue exactly the opposite and say the grands corps, the top government departments and offices of state should not recruit ENA graduates immediately but only after several years experience.

"Access to the grands corps should not be reserved for Ena graduates and they should first spend 15 years in the civil service. Our book criticises the fact that performance at the age of 22 determines a whole life," Mrs Bertin-Mourot said.

Mr Le Bris has put forward the idea of creating another "way in" to Ena to open up recruitment - with a postgraduate, two-year university course in civil administration which would prepare students for the entrance examination, with those who fail still getting a sought-after university diploma.

While such moves could open up the Ena which produces "modest" civil servants, only the ending of privileges such as exclusive access to the grands corps and the right to change career without resigning from it can stem Ena's steady supply of the country's rulers.

Mr Baudelot believes the present situation risks France's political health. "The reason far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is so popular is because he appears as a man of the people, someone challenging the Ena mould," he said.

But Ena will undoubtedly ride out this storm as it has others. In spite of all Mr Juppe's talk, its disappearance is more than unlikely. "It will never happen. Ena's lobby is everywhere, in all the most important places," said Mr Baudelot.

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