FR-ENAParis—At the end of World War II, French resistance hero and leader Charles de Gaulle created a graduate school for public administration to break the power of the elites in France.

After the defeat and destruction of the war, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) was to create a fresh start for the government, and for France.

But 75 years later, another French leader, himself a product of the prestigious school that spits out presidents and others at the top echelons of French society, wants to shut it down – to build a fairer, more equal society, he says.

"We have built centers of excellence which attract top-performing students but often by being unfair, by hurting others," said President Emmanuel Macron, speaking to civil servants on Thursday. "We have given up on building careers in a transparent and meritocratic way. We must radically change the way we recruit our public servants."

"I know what I'm talking about – I was part of it," he added.

The ENA is a French "grande école," elite higher education institutions that are separate from, but connected to, the French public university system. Its alumni include four of the past 12 presidents, eight prime ministers and two current ministers. Leaders of French industry have studied there, such as a founding father of aeronautical firm Airbus and a former chairman of Air France/KLM.

It's that cachet that has made the Strasbourg-based school a target of ire, both on the left and on the right. But in the beginning decades, it wasn't a bastion of privilege – more than half of its student body was from working-class families. Now that segment is less than six percent, according to French media.

The school takes under 100 students a year. Tuition and a monthly stipend are paid for by the government. After graduation, the top students are usually fast-tracked to high-ranking civil servant jobs in the administration.

Macron says he wants to replace the ENA with the Institute of Public Service at the school's current campus. It will also train students in public administration but require graduates to get on-the-job experience in lower-level jobs and often outside Paris before advancing on merit. This is in line with Macron's goal to create a more simple, transparent, efficient and responsive civil service.

Macron's announcement to shutter the school follows pledges he made during the Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) protests that began in late 2018 when thousands marched on the streets of Paris and other cities demanding economic and social justice.

In a gesture to the protesters, Macron went around the country in 2019 to talk to French voters about issues important to them. After this "great national debate" was over, he said the school should be shuttered because it doesn't reflect French society anymore.

Analysts say Macron's move is calculated to win far-right support as elections approach in 2022. His chief rival, far-right leader Marine Le Pen, is likely to run again.

"There are sections of French society who...detest power, not just that of Emmanuel Macron but the power of elites," said political analyst Guillaume Bigot, managing director of the IPAG business school in Paris. "I think Macron is very well aware of it and has decided to play this card."

Bigot says that Macron's troubles are in part attributable to the Yellow Vest protests and an attempt to reform the pension system – a sacred cow in France. The latter set off huge strikes in late 2019, crippling the public transportation system for weeks. But the pandemic is playing a role, too.

"The president managed to get some support for having resisted drastic restrictions during the health crisis," he said. "But he knows very well that people are at the end of their ropes. It's the entire ruling class that's being rejected by the French."

That's because of a growing divide in society between the so-called elite and everyone else: A large segment of the population has seen their opportunities for advancement decline over the past few decades, said François Bayrou, the leader of the centrist political party, the Democratic Movement (MoDem) in a French television interview.

"There is the absolute rupture between the base of society – those who work, those who are retired, those who are unemployed, (those) ho occupy all the lower positions at a company, the young, the students – and those at the summit of society," he said. "I am not sure that the social elevator (social mobility) works today as it worked for me – today things are much more stuck."

Even members of the upper classes acknowledge that something has to change. "We did very well, life has been very good for many people of my generation," said Bernhard, 66, of Paris, who is retired and describes himself as a member of the wealthy class. "But now, only the wealthy can count on doing okay – the next generations are not (inheriting) the opportunities and the security we had."

Macron understands all of this, he added. "The (closing of ENA) is maybe just a gesture," he said. "But it does show that Macron realizes something has to change."

Daniel Keller, president of ENA's alumni association, however, says Macron is hitting the wrong target.

"Eliminating ENA won't change anything – this reform has been criticized by both left-wing and right-wing politicians because many say it's the government and the way it works, not ENA, that we need to reform," he said. "ENA graduates are not responsible for the government's dysfunction."

He says that dysfunction includes France's handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which saw shortages in protective equipment, tests and intensive care beds. France, meanwhile, is in its third lockdown since March 2020.

"The current health crisis in France, where we'll soon reach 100,000 deaths, has shown we haven't been able to deal with it – the government is facing criticism and, perhaps, the president decided to sacrifice ENA in the current context," he added. "This is just for show. We have entered an election period and the government needs results."

But Bigot thinks that the school might be an appropriate target. He says over the years, it has come to undermine the "French idea of public interest."

"This is above private interests, economic interests, regional and local interests," he said. "The government's problem is that at ENA now, they teach students to detest the public interest."

Photo: France's prestigious École nationale d'administration. ENA is a French "grande école," elite higher education institutions that are separate from, but connected to, the French public university system. Its alumni include four of the past 12 presidents, eight prime ministers and two current ministers. Leaders of French industry have studied there, such as a founding father of aeronautical firm Airbus and a former chairman of Air France/KLM.
Credit: Stéphane Touraine/Wikimedia Commons (Sep. 2009)

Story/ photo published date: 04/12/2021

A version of this story was published in the Washington Times.