It all started with a great promise: to get out of nepotism in French politics. No more descent, but ambition would determine the route to the top. But the prestigious school, which had to bridge the gap between the people and the elite after World War II, has become the provider of this elite.
It was therefore possible that Emmanuel Macron, himself a graduate of the National School of Administration (ENA) of Staatsburg, announced Thursday the closure of the institute. Government needs to become more open, diverse and flexible – starting with training for civil servants.
Many leading French people, from prime ministers to ministers and CEOs of large companies, owe their position to the ENA. Each year, the best graduates have access to major government bodies, such as the Court of Auditors and the Council of State. Former presidents François Hollande, Jacques Chirac and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing studied there, as did current Prime Minister Jean Castex.
Inadvertently, the institute thus became the symbol of the French elite. Enarch, as the former students are called, is more and more a term of abuse than a recommendation.
Charles de Gaulle
While the famous President Charles de Gaulle had founded the school in 1945 to make the administration accessible to all social classes. On the basis of a rigorous selection, the best brains in the country, whatever their origin, would find their way. But while anyone can register for the entrance exam, in practice it is mainly students from better backgrounds with the best previous education who stand a chance of success. Only a fraction of it comes from a working class environment.
Criticism of the school has been ringing out for years. Students would be stuck in a mold, with critical thinking and creativity receiving little attention, former student Olivier Saby wrote in his school book. With so many resources and such smart students, more can be expected.
That it will now close is a promise from Macron in response to the yellow vests movement two years ago. The protest movement that has taken to the streets across France for months has focused, among other things, on the Parisian elite who are said to be alienated from ordinary French people. The ENA was the preeminent symbol. The social ladder did not work as well as it did 50 years ago, the president admitted.
Macron wants to replace the school with a new “Institute of Public Service”, which trains students with a greater eye on themes such as poverty, ecology and secularism. The diploma will no longer guarantee high-level employment with the French government. And graduates must first gain practical experience before they are allowed to take a managerial position.
Can a New School Really Change Political Culture? The president of the alumni association, Daniel Keller, spoke to FranceInfo about a mock trial. “We cannot hold the school responsible for all the failures of French education.” Instead of starting the same training under a new name, Macron could have better focused on reforming the current system.