President Emmanuel Macron is moving ahead with a plan to close Ecole Nationale d’Administration (Ena) — the elite postgraduate school that has trained the politicians and chief executives who dominate French public life.
The Elysée announced on Thursday that Ena, long dominated by students from privileged backgrounds, will be replaced by a new “public management school” that will draw from a more diverse pool of candidates and teach a broader curriculum including the environment and poverty.
To reform the senior civil service, the government will also abolish the system by which people are initially assigned to the most prestigious government jobs based on their ranking at Ena graduation, and instead give them roles based on needs and skills.
Macron first promised to abolish Ena, which has produced four of France’s seven presidents since 1958 and is his own alma mater, in 2019 in response to the anti-establishment gilets jaunes protests.
The decision shocked the French elite and divided public opinion — some saw it as a long overdue move to help fix an unequal society while others decried it as a cynical gesture pandering to populists.
Last year the government appeared to soften its stance and floated the idea of replacing Ena with a new institution while retaining the brand for international purposes such as the training of EU staff. That approach has now been adopted as Macron prepares for presidential elections next spring with his popularity dented by his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ena was founded in 1945 under Charles de Gaulle with the aim of training civil servants drawn from all social classes through entrance exams and assigning jobs based on performance rather than wealth or connections.
But in recent decades critics have called it a failed meritocracy given that students increasingly came from the upper classes — 70 per cent at the latest count, compared to about 45 per cent in the 1950s.
The close-knit group of graduates known as énarques then often help each other to the top jobs in business and politics. For example, the current chief executives of telecoms operator Orange, bank Société Générale, and food retailer Carrefour are all Ena graduates, as were five of the last ten prime ministers.
Only about 100 people, 80 of them French, emerge from the two-year programme each year.
Whether the new approach proposed by Macron’s government will prove to be fairer is difficult to predict, said Luc Rouban, a political scientist who has researched Ena and its history. It will depend on the details of how competitive entrance exams are conducted and how graduates of the new school are then placed in the civil service.
Nevertheless, in targeting Ena Macron is sending a political message, said Rouban. “He wants to show that he is enacting a reform to make France more meritocratic just as he promised he would when he was elected in 2017,” said Rouban.
“In a sense, Macron is trying to go back to Ena’s original mission in 1945 to attract talent from all walks of life to help run France, and stop it being the finishing school for elites it is today,” said Rouban. “The risk is that they just put a new name of the school on some business cards, but little else changes.”
Damien Abad, the leader of the centre-right Les Républicains group in the National Assembly, said he supported abolishing Ena because it produced leaders who were “disconnected” from the population. “We must open up access to the senior civil service and encourage upwards social mobility,” said the politician, who himself failed the Ena entrance exam. “This is a first step.”
Benjamin Cauchy, a former gilets jaunes activist who has gone into politics, was more sceptical. “The problem is not Ena. It is the groupthink and the inability of political leaders to direct the civil service and reform the state.”