France’s enarchy

Patrice de Beer
29 November 2005

What do the following people have in common:

  • the French president Jacques Chirac
  • his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin
  • his socialist ex-prime minister, Lionel Jospin
  • the head of Euronext, which controls several European stock exchanges including Paris, Jean-François Theodore
  • the Japanese politician and secretary to the trade minister Satsuki Katayama
  • the European Union director-general for health and consumer protection, the Briton Robert Madelin?

The answer: they all graduated from the prestigious French government school, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (Ena), which in 2005 is celebrating its sixtieth anniversary.

Every year, between September and December, a discrete but ruthless selection process screens 1,000 French and a few dozen non-French applicants for a two-year-long curriculum. Of the 600 students who submit the five compulsory papers, about ninety are allowed to compete in the oral tests; of these, half will share the privilege of joining Ena – where they will join those who have passed the specific streams for civil servants and members of civil society, as well as their new foreign comrades.

An attrition rate of more than 90% makes this test one of the toughest in the world, reminiscent in the accumulation of knowledge it requires of the Confucian exams in the “middle kingdom”! But this is the price to pay to get a posh job for life and, for the top tier of graduates, to join an elite club of énarques: government officials, politicians and CEOs.

Patrice de Beer is former London and Washington correspondent for Le Monde. His most recent articles for openDemocracy include:

“France’s post-referendum trauma” (May 2005)

“France’s incendiary crisis” (September 2005)

The Schröder-Merkel clash spills across the Rhine (October 2005)

“Paris in flames: the limits of repression” (October 2005)

“The message in France’s explosion” (November 2005)

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The latest batch will know their fate near Christmas before going straight to a one-year training period in government offices and firms, in France or elsewhere in the world.

Ena was created under General De Gaulle in 1945 to rebuild a public service decimated by the second world war and collaboration with the Nazis. The institution is known – for better or worse – for having produced la crème de la crème of France’s elite (around 6,000 in total over these sixty years). It has created generations of well-trained civil servants in a country where the role of the state remains paramount and where everyone expects it to provide the necessary public services. These énarques are civil servants trained to acquire a shared administrative ethos; but they also tend to come out of the same mould, to have a largely conformist attitude and often a very French – the French say “Franco-French” – vision of the outside world. The esteemed French values of “public service the French way” (or “the French social model” itself) are embodied in this cast of officials who are trained to serve the state even more than the nation.

These grey men – with more women as time goes by (25% in 2004) – have managed France for more than half a century. But, since the 1970s, Ena has also become for a small minority (around 2%) the springboard for a political career as politicians of left, right and centre – including two presidents, three prime ministers, scores of ministers, MPs, mayors, and local officials – join énarque high-achievers in other professions (heads of public or semi-public enterprises: railways [SNCF], airlines [Air France], electricity [EDF] or gas utilities [EDF].

At least five of the contenders to lead the Socialist Party to the 2007 presidential elections are énarques. And with the stream of privatisations of the last two decades, the – relative – downsizing of the state and the parallel surge of market economy and of the private sector, more and more top positions have been occupied by énarques who have jumped ship to join the business community, where their skills as well as their political and administrative address books are more than welcome.

Some of them have been amazingly successful, like Louis Schweitzer, who made the Renault car manufacturer one of the top in the world by buying out Nissan. Some have been a devastating failure like Jean-Marie Messier, who ruined Vivendi Universal, or Jean-Yves Haberer, considered at the time as one of the brightest civil servants of his generation but whose abysmal blunders almost bankrupted one of the major banks, Credit Lyonnais. All this explains the popular term énarchie to portray the French politico-economic system.

The shock of the new

The French political establishment’s loss of credibility – as well as its helplessness in the face of the economic crisis and massive unemployment of recent years – have tainted the image of Ena, which is being seen by many in the public, including former alumni, as a symbol of French bureaucratic arrogance, political cronyism and social conservatism. It has become an easy scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.

Threatened in its very existence – some MPs have even asked for its closure – the school has tried to reinvent itself from a typically French-centred institution, in two ways: by stressing its international accessibility and by moving from Paris to Strasbourg, closer to European Union institutions. This has entailed a more businesslike recruiting profile, more European content and more foreign students; the latter currently total 1,077 – most of them from the European Union (313 Germans, 87 British), but also 75 Canadians, 103 Japanese, 42 Chinese (who have created their own brand of Ena), and even 34 Americans.

In London, énarques can be found in the civil service – cabinet office, treasury or foreign office – more than in the financial sector. George Walden, former conservative MP and junior minister in the Thatcher government, graduated from Ena in 1977.

This fresh blood comes mostly from civil services eager to get inner knowledge of French administrative skills before bringing back their new experience to their former departments. They can also make use of a new-style old-boy network which (to quote a British eurocrat) “is more helpful than Oxbridge: it is not limited to drinking with old alumni, but we meet each other everywhere in Brussels”. At the same time, the change provides the French establishment with its own global network: for instance, a number of British or American graduates end up working for French multinationals in Paris or in their own countries, and the current Czech ambassador in France, Pavel Fischer graduated from Ena in 1999.

But the impact of Ena in international business and finance – excluding chairmen and former chairmen of the European Central Bank, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development or the IMF – remains limited. If it helps French firms to recruit non-French executives with a working knowledge of France, it is still marginal in a globalised world where Anglo-Saxon liberal methods have become the norm and the authority or prestige of public service are not as important as they are in France. This process explains also the popularity of international business schools, which recruit many of the brightest French students. The great challenge for Ena, as for other French institutions, is to show that it can adjust creatively to the world’s evolution and to a market economy while retaining its French flair and social influence – rather than merely fighting a rearguard battle.

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