World view: the road to heaven or hell

May 4, 2001

Candidates for tenured professorships in France have 30 gruelling minutes to prove themselves worthy. Yochanan Altman watched the ordeal.

The tall spectacled 31-year-old, pale and unshaven, sits stiff on the low metal chair behind a small desk covered with a green flannel cloth and featuring a large yellow timer clock. It is a cold early spring day in Paris, yet the young man is sweating profusely. He has just been marched across the short pathway, popularly known as "the corridor of death". Now he stares at the seven individuals facing him from the other end of the small room.

Seated at the centre of the long, green-clothed table is a 60-something white-haired man flanked by four men and two women in their 40s and 50s. The septet is dressed in identical uniform: blood-red robes, black silk shirts with long white-laced ribbons. Their expressions are stern. They are here to pass judgement on the young man. He is here to defend himself. He has precisely 30 minutes to convince the jury that his plea should not be dismissed.

This is not in a court of law, but a meeting room at the ministry of national education, research and technology. This is a bi-annual ritual dating back to Napoleonic times, a trial of competence, maturity and manners.

The defendant is a candidate for the position of full professor in private law, attending a public examination ( agrégation ) by a national selection board. Passing judgement are his senior peers from all over France. In a couple of days, he will learn whether he has made it to the next and final round, and if successful there, he will become a high-ranking civil servant with a guaranteed position for life under a decree signed by the president of the republic. He may even choose the university in which to work, and he will have made it at the tender age of 31. French meritocracy makes this possible for a selected few, and having this opportunity makes the young man very proud to be here.

This is the second part of the three-phase examination. Eight hours earlier he arrived, after a sleepless night, to draw by lottery his exam topic. He has since been behind closed doors, in a sparsely furnished room (lodge) containing a few resource books and his packed lunch, working frantically alongside four other candidates. Carefully rehearsing the time at his disposal, he knows that he will be stopped abruptly when the 30 minutes are up. Falling short of the full time may suggest that he has not much to say, while speaking beyond the 30-minute mark would mean he is not able to gauge his speech.

Precisely eight hours later, the moment of truth has come. Eyeing the stony faces opposite him, his blood-drained lips utter the opening words "Monsieur le President", as etiquette requires.

I am here by invitation of Frank Bournois, professor of human resource management at the University of Paris (Pantheon-Assas). He is a member of the management sciences panel, which convenes in an adjacent room. We are writing a paper on the French academic career system and I am keen to have a glance at this formative event.

Maurice Saias, a renowned professor of strategy from the University of Aix, chairs the board. It is the tradition to alternate chairs between Parisian and provincial universities, and it is the turn of the provinces.

The management board members seem more informal. Dressed in suits (for which, I am told, they may be rebuked by their private law colleagues who think that "one is here to pass judgement and ought to dress accordingly"), they engage more readily with the candidates, nodding in approval (though mostly in disapproval), exchanging glances, passing notes.

The language of power is spoken all the same. Note the discrete pin on the jacket flap, indicating an award of distinction; the dismissive look; the unmistakeable ironic remark. They hold the power all right, and they are going to make sure that whoever joins their club has sweated all the way uphill. And not just sweat. A lady in her late 30s is reduced to tears by the time her session is over.

On another board, a thin grey-haired man is in the dock, a bewildered look on his face, his voice cracked, his mouth dry. He lost 10kg in the weeks leading up to the examination. It is his third attempt at climbing Olympus and he feels that he is losing his grip. The corollary of honour is shame. Once again, he may bear the humiliation of facing peers, friends and family. Tomorrow, when the results become known, he will be a broken man, or victorious.

Put another way: here we encounter liberté , egalité , fraternité in action for all to see. Liberty, as the competition is open and free; equality - all are examined with equity, hence the tight procedure; and fraternity, since it is peer-assessed without administrative or political interference. " Vive la République !" I want to cry on my way out, when the thought occurs to me that, actually, this is a vestige of the ancien régime that I have just witnessed.

Yochanan Altman is research professor of international human resource management and comparative management at the University of North London.

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