Dear Partners in thought,
Growing up in the times of the rising Jacques Chirac who was giving a breath of fresh air and “Hussardism” to my Gaullist political family in the 1970s and even voting “No” at the 1992 Maastricht referendum (doubtless then a youthful mistake driven by “l’ancienne gloire” of the Napoleonic era combined with a scary, foresightful wink to the Brexiteers of the future), I never thought I would be impressed by and vote for a man who had been a member of the socialist government under François Hollande (even if we shared a stint as bankers for the Rothschild family). And then I did.
In 2017 I voted Emmanuel Macron having been throughly disappointed by François Fillon’s moral compas and sense of entitlement. Macron changed the French political landscape as some British friends would like to see cross-channel, sending the two main parties to quasi-oblivion for the Socialists and intensive care for the center right Républicains, unwittingly having to thrive without a real and constructive opposition which may have been a poison chalice in disguise. Macron led key reforms in a country that is eminently conservative regardless of whom was in power over the last seventy years and crucially became a leading voice for the renewal of the European project.
The “Gilets Jaunes” (Yellow Vests) erupted in November with conflicting demands to “change life”, many of them suffering from economic and social ostracism in a country that is the most redistributive of the OECD on a par with Sweden (see my Interludes on the Yellow Vests on this matter). Macron both quickly caved in and made concessions amounting to multiple billions of Euros while engineering the start of a Great National Debate so the French could express their views on their future. His reaction was seen by many as quickly surrendering to demonstrators, quite a few of them violent, who in turn were never satisfied by such concessions as they did not change the “horrible” system in which they and I guess we all lived.
Macron went further and wanted to “make a big splash” announcing that he would plan to abolish the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the elite postgraduate institution established in 1945 that has formed future top French civil servants that counts presidents, prime ministers and chief executives among its alumni. Every year a class of 100 students graduate and is on its way to run France first as civil servants and then for some as business executives at the leading French corporates. It was a very divisive step with some applauding “the long overdue reform in an unequal society” while others, like me, seeing it as a damaging act of populism.
This step triggers a debate about the elite in France and generally modern Western society. The French have always had since 1789 a “penchant” in their genes for equality or even equalitarianism as if society did not need an elite or the way that elites appeared was unequivocally inegalitarian thus wrong in essence. It is astounding as this emotional stance is deprived from any historical reality check and the fact that any society indeed “enjoys” elites, something the revolutionary Bolcheviks and then the Nomenklatura could attest to. So there is always an elite though the problem is how it does appear.
Is it better to have strongmen become the elite as they have more muscles or weapons as in many countries still today? Is it better to have an elite that benefits from dramatic changes in their countries and are well politically connected at the crucial time such as the oligarch class in parts of Europe? Or it better to have like at ENA a transparent examination process that everybody can take which will lead to an education that will give more tools to these students to take part in leading the government of their country?
Clearly the upper classes will be privileged in terms of school admissions the world over though mainly as its members spent time “reading” in their early youth (one of my professors always asked in his questionnaire to students if there were books at home). However nobody is prevented to take the ENA exam if she or he can show the right credentials. While I was part of a leading high school in Paris, I was not a good student and played far too much tennis in my teens (stopping my studying after flunking my Bac once to hit the ball) and could never have been admitted into ENA (America saved me but that’s another story). However I always recognised the value of ENA and its graduates who were so easily despised as being the dreaded elite at home while the world kept recognising the high quality of the top French civil service. And if you don’t have a tough knowledge-based selection process for getting into the best school, what do you have that is more fair? And looking abroad is it sensible to consider the closing down of these awful elitist beacons such as Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford? Maybe we could set up an admission lottery which no doubt would identify the best student in-take?
Suppressing ENA is caving in to populism. ENA should not be closed but could be reformed also to ensure that its in-take represents France better (in itself a very arduous endeavour) though without sacrificing the principles of selection that have produced the leaders of France since 1945. And whatever desire to assuage the Yellow Vests and the likes (who are a real, but admittedly vocal, minority that is being “heard”) Macron should indeed focus on pursuing his deep reforms in relation to economic development, the role of the state in that development and how to attract the best people in that key effort. At a time when many talented young Frenchmen now want to be entrepreneurs instead of senior civil servants and be part of the elite “without checking the box of a government job” (or indeed like I did go far away to study and build a life outside France), it would be also useful to retain some of these talents to work on building the next government chapters of France. ENA is a national asset for France and should stay.
And I still like Macron.