PARIS (Reuters Breakingviews) - It’s rarely big news when a French bank recruits a new domestic retail chief or a head of strategy. Yet when BNP Paribas and Société Générale filled these positions a year ago, it was all over the French, and even international, press.
That had little to do with the financial experience of the people the banks hired, or the seniority of their new roles. Instead, what piqued media interest was that both executives – Sébastien Proto of SocGen and Marguerite Bérard-Andrieu at BNP – were classmates of President Emmanuel Macron at École nationale d’administration (ENA), the finishing school for France’s managerial class.
There’s nothing quite like ENA outside France. Neither the Ivy League, nor Oxbridge, nor the top schools in Japan have the same pedigree. America’s cadre of Rhodes Scholars can’t match the influence of the 90 or so men and women that ENA turns out annually. Since its establishment under Charles de Gaulle in 1945, it has effectively functioned as the country’s factory for presidents (four of the last six), chief executives (SocGen and Orange, among them), prime ministers and top civil servants. Two of the most senior leaders in Macron’s government are also “énarques”, as its graduates are called: Prime Minister Édouard Philippe and Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire.
Macron’s plan to decommission the school as part of his government’s wider response to the yellow-vest movement, which staged its 23rd weekend of protests this past weekend, is therefore imbued with symbolism. But shuttering ENA also smacks of the sort of political gimmickry that he has generally eschewed since his 2017 election. True, he threw money – some 10 billion euros – at the yellow-vest problem in December to boost the monthly minimum wage, remove taxes on overtime, and offer relief to poor retirees. But during his campaign two years ago he positioned himself as something of an antidote to populist politicians promising quick and easy fixes to thorny problems.
Think of Britain using a referendum to sidestep tricky issues related to European Union membership. Or the way voters in the United States, Italy and elsewhere elected leaders bearing simple solutions to complicated matters such as immigration and income inequality. Macron never promised to build a wall, like U.S. President Donald Trump, or institute a universal basic income, as Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio did.
But now he too looks to be succumbing to the temptation of offering sops rather than real solutions. Getting rid of France’s Delta Force for civil administrators won’t automatically free up top spots in government, finance, business and beyond. Nor is the abolition of the elite school his only nod to symbolism. Last week, after flames engulfed Notre-Dame, Macron vowed to rebuild the grand cathedral in central Paris within five years. It’s another bold gesture that ignores the complexity of the problems he is trying to address and elides over the tough choices involved. While there’s no comparing the significance of an edifice begun in the 12th Century with a school founded 74 years ago, both are important in different ways to French society.
Granted, France needs to reform its education system to provide its youth with greater economic opportunities. As the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development pointed out earlier this year, it takes six generations for a person in France at the bottom end of the income distribution to reach the mean. “More than 15 percent of 15-year-olds have poor numeracy and comprehension skills, which are likely to lead to difficulties in finding work later,” wrote Laurence Boone, the organisation’s chief economist. “Only Hungary shows more social determinism than France.”
But to suggest that the problem at the bottom of the educational funnel can be addressed by sacrificing the uppermost pinnacle of the system doesn’t add up. Germany – where there is no equivalent training ground for elite students – is as bad as France in the same OECD rankings of socio-economic immobility.
Moreover, admission to ENA is highly meritocratic in that only students who have excelled in their undergraduate studies and conquered written and oral exams are allowed entry. While any such process will favour those whose families can afford extra tuition, it cannot be gamed like a spot at the University of Southern California or even Yale, as was revealed to be the case by America’s recent college-admissions scandal.
There’s almost certainly a case to make for changing the composition of an ENA education to make the training less susceptible to groupthink. And the trajectory of énarques into positions of influence, with something like lifetime employment, may need a rethink. But having an army of experts trained in the intricacies of government, with safeguards to oversee potential conflicts of interest when they move into the private sector, has many merits for a modern democracy.
The alternative is something like the U.S. system where retired chief executives, industry lobbyists and political cronies take the top jobs based on their relationship with the president, not on their training, hard work and insights into the inner workings of the state. Good luck with that.
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