Wednesday, September 1, 1999

Elites, élan et l'Etat

The Ecole Nationale d'Administration is a launch pad for meteoric careers in the civil service, politics and industry. Anne-Elisabeth Moutet asks how its unabashed elitism will serve France in the 2000s

They are all alike. Or at least they look it. Smooth, clever, quick with an analysis, sometimes impressively efficient; often infuriatingly flippant and detached from the nuts and bolts of the organisations they run. France is the only country – apart from Japan, with omnipresent Tokyo University ('Todai') graduates – which has a seamless front linking top civil servants, government officials, business leaders, even finance wizards. The President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, is a member of the club. So is his prime minister (and Socialist political opponent), Lionel Jospin. So are their rivals within their parties. So are the chairs of France Telecom, Renault, oil giant Elf-Aquitaine, 17 of the 20 largest French banks, water utility giant Vivendi, four out of six broadcast television channels (public and private), half the French Cabinet, two-thirds of partners at Rothschild et Cie merchant bank. And so on, and so on.

All these people are graduates of the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, known in France as ENA. It is a government school whose students enter via a gruelling competitive examination (only 120 are admitted each year) and exit with a precise ranking that will determine their careers.

The influence of ENA has been compared with Oxbridge in the UK. It is at the same time more and less meritocratic, ENA-bred technocrats will argue almost convincingly. 'In France, you succeed and are integrated into the highest levels of society only through scholarship,' says one. 'In one generation, you can become a firm member of the establishment. In the US, in one generation you can become very rich but you will not become a Wasp. What is undemocratic is that once you belong to the elite, you will never fail. There are no sanctions, except for political ones, and these are not final, because the same people come back two years later. There is a network of solidarity.'

ENA was created on October 9, 1945, by a decree signed by General Charles de Gaulle, then heading the newly liberated France's provisional government. He wanted to remove once and for all the largely Napoleonic French administration 'that sadly had shown in 1940 how obsolete it had been allowed to become'. Behind this lay an old French fear – the defeatism and failure of its elites, as shown by the large number of high-level collaborationists in the Vichy government during the Second World War. Much the same had happened in 1871, when Professor Emile Boutmy created the Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques, later IEP (familiarly known as Sciences Po) directly after the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.

The school was the brainchild of a future prime minister, Michel Debré, who would later draft the Constitution of the Fifth Republic in 1958. He said he wanted to give 'young students of all conditions' access to the kind of studies until then 'the preserve of the children of the rich Parisian elite, studying at the Institut des Etudes Politiques'. Ironically, Sciences Po, which had fulfiled its promise in 1914, had failed in 1940 to vote for the government of Marshal Henri Pétain, and was nationalised in the same legislation that created ENA.

No one could have known, in the flush of liberation, quite how much influence ENA graduates, or énarques, would eventually wield in France. Yet their image – there are now around 4,500 énarques in France – evolved to evoke some of the very things ENA was created to dispel: a haughty, inbred caste of privileged young men (and about 20% women) firmly believing that their destiny is to rule the country in close association with other énarques, with little more than contempt for whoever is not cast in their mould.

The scarcely concealed real power is evident when you start listing famous ones. According to another study, only 10% of politicians are énarques, yet they hold almost all the high-profile jobs. Of all France's presidents of the Fifth Republic, only two – Valéry Giscard d'Estaing and Jacques Chirac – were young enough to attend the new institute. De Gaulle tended to pick old Resistance companions as his chief ministers, with the notable exception of Georges Pompidou (who, like his contemporary Jean-Paul Sartre, taught French literature in a lycée during the Occupation).

Pompidou's resulting inferiority complex made him pick his own best and brightest from among the énarques, rather than from the ranks of historic Gaullists, whom he felt would always remind him of his wartime attentism, or lack of political commitment. Hence the brilliant careers of politicians and industrialists such as Chirac, Raymond Barre, Michel Jobert, Jacques Calvet and Edouard Balladur. Similarly, the Left had its own énarques: Lionel Jospin, Michel Rocard, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Laurent Fabius, Pierre Joxe, Jacques Attali, and later, Martine Aubry and Elisabeth Guigou, among others.

The former Speaker of the Assemblée Nationale, Philippe Séguin, as well as his successor, Fabius, are énarques. The governor of the Banque de France, Jean-Claude Trichet, is an énarque. Autodidact big bosses, who may harbour their own opinion of énarques, still hire a few – so that those crucial telephone calls or discreet meetings can always be arranged between 'old colleagues'. Foreign governments send a few of their best and brightest to ENA to have someone who will help them understand France: there is a special programme for foreigners at the school, the only notable differences are that they are not ranked (ensuring they have a better time among the fiercely competitive students) and spend only three months doing a practical trainee stint (le stage) in a French administration, as opposed to two stints of six months for French students. Such high-flyers as the German Joachim Bitterlich (currently tipped to become the European Union's foreign policy representative) or the Briton Matthew Kirk of the Cabinet Office attended ENA; most European nationalities are usually represented, as well as Japan, South America and Africa.

Edith Cresson, that famously crusading anti-énarque, who ordered the school's removal in 1992 to Strasbourg in a failed attempt to lessen its influence, still employed three énarques in the top jobs among her staff when she was prime minister. Probably the most accurate criticism I have heard of her was that 'she didn't know how to pick her énarques. The ones she got were absolutely the wrong ones, no charisma or organisation. They let themselves be trampled all over by everyone else's énarques during inter-ministerial staff meetings. Of course, later she gave up on énarques and hired her dentist.' Thus speaks another énarque – a chief of staff for one of Cresson's former ministers.

You can rise pretty high in France without belonging to this caste but, as the example of the late prime minister Pierre Bérégovoy shows, you are never allowed to forget that you are not quite top drawer. You will not be forgiven your mistakes. Bérégovoy – driven to suicide in the early 1990s by the disclosure of an interest-free loan he was given by a shady business friend of François Mitterrand – was the target of cruel jokes from members of his own government. Interior Minister Pierre Joxe, himself an énarque and the son of a Gaullist minister, once 'defended' Bérégovoy against criticism by remarking: 'You only have to look at Pierre Bérégovoy's socks to know he's an honest man.'

What is conveniently forgotten is how weighted the scales are in favour of those students who already know what the game is all about, usually because their families have been there first. The oral examination that ends the round of written tests to get into ENA is as much a test of social ease, a certain type of detached repartee, of social background, as it is of general knowledge. The selection committee, which in addition to professors, includes old boys and girls of every variety, tries to put the student off, with questions such as: 'What trade did [JM] Keynes' wife practise?' (One student who actually knew the correct answer – a Ballets Russes dancer who ran with the Bloomsbury crowd – was still not passed: he had committed, he recalled with bitterness 30 years later, the cardinal sin of shooting back his answer 'too earnestly, as if I were sitting in a quiz show instead of making a flippant joke of it'.) 'Who, for you, is the woman who best represents the average French female?' 'Do you prefer Athens or Sparta? Talleyrand or Fouché?' The same unlucky candidate gave Michèle Morgan as the epitome of French femininity, only to be countered languidly by a white-haired diplomat with: 'But what about Brigitte Bardot?'

The two-year course includes a practical stage in an administration, state-owned company or even a foreign country, as well as lectures in public law, economics, history and political science. Tension is kept at a high pitch; the final exam includes a ranking that effectively will decide the énarques' future career for the next 40 years. Only the top 15 students of their 120-strong year at ENA (la botte) can join the civil service grands corps (Inspection des Finances, Cour des Comptes and Conseil d'Etat). These are inter-ministerial bodies that control state finances and procedures of the state administration. Inspection des Finances is by far the strongest network – they are superénarques who believe they are a different breed from all other énarques. Most of them then go on for a stint at the French Treasury: no anti-Frankfurt advocates need apply. The rest will become préfets, diplomats, and so on, their networks never as high powered as expected; their careers and pay never quite hitting the heights.

The result of this inbreeding, critics have repeatedly warned, is to create structural weaknesses in the French economic and political fabric, a tendency to do deals with one's peers rather than let them assume the full weight of their decisions – witness the constant bailing out of ailing French companies by the government, from Dassault to Air France.

The French elite rise to the top without any business experience; they apply to every situation the strong authoritarian hierarchic mould they learnt in the civil service; they are remarkably insular and ignorant of the world outside France. For example, Jacques Attali insisted that an 'Anglo-Saxon plot' had cost him his job at the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development, not his lavish spending on the bank's headquarters. They demoralise the majority of civil servants, politicians, and businesspeople who, knowing they are not members of the club, realise that most top jobs will escape them, even if they have spent an entire career in their company or political party.

Unlike Whitehall civil servants who come from a slightly more varied academic background, even if a great many are Oxbridge, they have read an infinity of different things there, énarques have spent their formative studies swotting on narrow subjects. 'While the studies were of a very high level,' remembers one British énarque, who enjoyed his time at the school, 'I found it impossible to have real debates with my classmates. They were amazingly bright but they would never "waste time" in conversation or intellectual debate when they could be gaining the few points that meant a difference in ranking. All they always wanted was "the right answer" – it dismayed many of our lecturers.'

The danger with Oxbridge graduates can be dilettantism; but it has advantages – a sense of distance that the average énarque cruelly lacks. On the other hand, it does not much matter what your social background is when you have been to ENA; the school makes you. And in France, accent and delivery have got to do with education, not background. However, the snobbery is confined within the school. The Inspection des Finances actually prints its own annuaire (listing of past graduates of inspection), distinct from the less exalted annuaire de l'ENA. Anyone thinking that Jospin (ranked in the 80s, foreign ministry) is on the same level as Chirac (ranked tenth, Cour des Comptes) or Fabius (first, inspecteur des finance) is missing a key nuance in French politics.

Through France's mathematical and scientific tradition, and because the only other school that approaches ENA in terms of social promotion is the top engineering school Polytechnique – which your brightest énarques, from Giscard d'Estaing to author Alain Minc, have also attended, énarques are usually much better plugged into technology and business. One example is Michel Bon, chairman of France Telecom, universally acknowledged to be the best among European telecommunications chiefs. Bon, an atypical enough inspecteur des finances that he headed the hypermarket chain Carrefour for several years, really understands what industrial policy is about.

But then French culture is about top-down industrial policy all the way from Louis XIV: anything that requires massive investment and infrastructure, from the high-speed TGV trains to fibre optics, telecommunications, etc. Your average énarque, however, is blind to the 'bottom-up', that 'post-industrial revolution that takes place in the bedrooms of 14-year-olds', as the writer Adam Gopnik once put it. The Internet baffles them – they cannot comprehend that it has no centre.

And yet most members of this elite still feel they have to prove themselves in different areas, always with the detached attitude of the amateur. The solution in France? Literature, of course. Attali, Jean-Yves Haberer, Juppé, Giscard d'Estaing have all written rather bad, bloodless novels. Jean-Claude Trichet writes poems and essays on poetry. Banque Nationale de Paris' Michel Pébereau, even in the middle of the bank's current hostile takeover bid for Société Générale and Paribas, reviews science fiction books for a highbrow magazine. Having monopolised almost all positions of power in France, énarques still crave recognition from circles that they know have little power.

© Copyright The European & Anne-Elisabeth Moutet 1999

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are they still as powerful today, 10 years later?