Time for a French revolution

May 29, 1998

No one ever went broke betting on the conceit and vanity of his fellow human beings. Similarly, one cannot go wrong by claiming that public policies are designed to profit those who design them. The recent report by Jacques Attali on the French higher education system provides a perfect example.

Mr Attali is the epitome of what the French think of as someone with a successful career. A graduate of Ecole Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the two top elite schools, he became a close adviser to Francois Mitterrand, produced a seemingly endless stream of clever books on every conceivable subject, the latest of which is a Dictionary of the 21st Century, and was the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Abroad, Mr Attali is best known for having to resign from the bank after his expenses made headlines in the financial press. None of this, however, could affect the status he enjoys in France, which relies on the fact that he topped the 1963 class from Ecole Polytechnique.

France extends the privileged status of infallibility to a few hundred graduates every year from a score of grandes ecoles. The brightest of the bright attend first the Ecole Polytechnique, which is science-oriented, and then the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, which is law-oriented.

Sociologists such as Pierre Bourdieu and political scientists such as Ezra Suleiman have shown the structure of French society to concentrate power into the hands of a few hundred. The boundaries of that group are decided early on by an elaborate (and expensive) system of examinations, and there is nothing you can do later in life to enter that group if you were not in at the proper age. Jacques Chirac, more than half the French cabinet, and almost all major business leaders are graduates either from Ecole Polytechnique or from Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

But the system is beginning to fray. The failure of the Credit Lyonnais cost 150 billion francs (Pounds 15 billion). The president of the bank at the time was Jean-Yves Haberer, and the head of the treasury, who was supposed to oversee its operations, was Jean-Claude Trichet, both brilliant members of the French elite.

The bank was deemed too big to fail, and its leaders too brilliant to be called to account, and it was bailed out at public expense without any charges of wrongdoing. The scandal has destroyed a lot of confidence, not only in politicians, but also in the senior civil servants who were supposed to run the bank in the interests of the public.

Could it be that the grandes ecoles system does not foster competence but cronyism? Could it be that people shielded from competition and accountable only to their peers would not turn all their energies to fostering the public good? Even more worrying, the power system, built elaborately by Napoleon Bonaparte to keep every aspect of life under control, is becoming increasingly irrelevant as the global economy invades France.

Mr Attali sees the danger. In the introduction to his report, he points out that French higher education is particularly endangered "because it has been for a very long time, and for reasons completely foreign to the logic of the market, divided into two subsets: universities and grandes ecoles". Evolution into a competitive system would "sweep away all the foundations of the republic. Among others, the equality of access to higher education in the public system, which is one of its cornerstones, would no longer be assured. France, in its very nature, would be challenged".

"Equality of access" is bureaucratese for "no tuition fees", which, by any method of measurement, transfers a small amount of money from the poor (who do not benefit from the higher education system, and especially not from the grandes ecoles) to the rich (who very heavily do).

The report recommends aligning the university system on the grandes ecoles. The main difference used to be that there were four years to graduation through the university system, and five years through the grandes ecoles. Therefore, university studies shall be lengthened by a year.

Mr Attali gives a dazzling demonstration that it will cost no money, and goes on to recommend that the old degrees, delivered two and four years into the system, be kept alive as well. The new degrees will be comparable to a bachelor's and to a master's, as understood in the United States, and will bring the French system "closer to European standards".

More important are the advantages that the grandes ecoles will derive. Their mission, as opposed to the universities, is clear: "They will go on to be one of the main breeding grounds for the technician elite".

Please could someone tell Mr Attali that there is a new world out there, with competition among businesses and universities, that breeding elites went with the Chinese empire and its mandarins, and that people prove themselves by their achievements during their lifetime and not by examinations passed in their youth?

In ignorance of such facts, Mr Attali seeks to preserve the elite French way. Since the grandes ecoles recruit from an ever narrower class of families, like racehorses dying out from inbreeding, he will provide them with a broader basis by allowing them to draw from universities as well as from special cramming schools.

The report points out that the central administration and government are running out of positions to offer graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration.

The proposed remedy is to find new positions to offer these fabled administrators. The report says that in local government, health administration, justice and research, there are untapped reserves of plums for the enarques.

This is all to the good of the country since they are defined to be "agents of change, teamworkers applying the policies defined by the government and approved by Parliament". No one apart from Mr Attali ever thought of bureaucrats as agents of change. As for the idea of change coming from the top down, under the inspired leadership of government and parliament, I thought it had gone out with the former Soviet Union, but I was clearly mistaken.

Certainly the present government, which commissioned this report, would be well inspired to forget it. Change will come as deregulation and the opening of markets force the French elite out of its monopoly power, and the grandes ecoles system ceases to carry the plums and offerings it has so generously provided up to now.

Ivar Ekeland teaches at the Ceremade et Institut de Finance, Universite Paris-Dauphine.

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