by Jerome a Paris
Sat Mar 25th, 2006 at 02:08:26 PM EST
I wrote this as a comment in one of the front page stories, but it's probably worth a full diary of its own.
whether you are part of the elite in France or not is very simple - it's essentially decided by the school (the Grande Ecole) you go to when you are 20. The administrative elite comes from ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Administration) - but they have been spreading into business in recent years; the technocratic elite comes from Polytechnique (or X), and the intellectual elite comes from Normale (Ecole Normale Supérieure). You have a not-unsignificant number of other engineering and business schools that are considered Grandes Ecoles as well but seen as less prestigious. They provide most of the the top managerial, professional or engineering jobs, except for these that require very specific training like doctors or lawyers.
Within the top 3 Grandes Ecoles mentioned above, you have an additional hierarchy - you get ranked while studying, and the best ranked students get to choose the Grands Corps d'Etat to which they will belong. Some of these Corps have an almost absolute monopoly on the very top jobs.
- at ENA, the top 3 corps are Inspection des Finances, Cour des Comptes and Conseil d'Etat. Each year, you get about 5 students in each (out of about 100 students) - these 15 are the top énarques, and in all likelihood the only ones the rest of the world will ever hear of as they will go into politics or get top administrative or business jobs, usually after stints in the cabinets ministériels, the political staff of ministers (which means that they have to choose sides at some point). The others énarques will fill in the ministries, the préfectures and other admin jobs in hospitals and other public bodies, but they are very unlikely to ever get to the very top
- at Polytechnique, there is one Corps clearly above all else, the Corps des Mines. It used to provide mining engineers, but now it basically runs French industry. Probably 30 or the 40 CEOs of the CAC 40 are Mineurs (or X-Mines). There's 10 of them every year, out of a yearly contingent of 400-500 polytechniciens. There's a second fairly prestigious Corps, the Corps des Ponts, which, like its name indicates, is in charge of roads and civil engineering (and most of its members still do that, at least in their early years). There's 30 X-Ponts every year, and a number of companies and administrations are under their thumb;
- the normaliens are the literary elite. They don't usually run thing but they write books and feed debates and pontificate. They get privileged access to oped pages in the main newspapers and, these days, slots on TV. But their grip on these things is less tight than the other two.
The important thing is that the diploma you get when you are 20 or so will follow you for the rest of your life and will determine, except for a few exceptional cases, how high you will go in business or in the top administration in France.
The first circle of the elite is the 10 X-Mines and 15 top énarques each year. They are guaranteed the top jobs in the country. The second circle is the remaining polytechniciens and énarques. They will fill out all the other top positions, and occasionally one of them climbs to the very top. The third circle is the students from the other Grandes Ecoles. They will fill up the management of the big companies and the specialised professional jobs. It's pretty rare for anyone else to join in, except, as I said, for a few exceptional individuals. Pay packages in the private sector are very directly linked to your diploma, even for fairly senior positions.
In one way, the system is fair, in that once you are in, you're in, irrespective of your social origins, personal wealth or connection. If you are the son of an Algerian immigrant and you get in by your smarts, you will be treated as a full member of the elite. Of course, the children of the elite (and the kids of teachers, who know the system well) have a better chance because their parents know what the goal is, and they will push their children in the right direction, and they have a better ability to help them through the gruelling math and science classes you need to go through. But a brilliant kid, irrespective of his/her background, will always get in, as the teachers know the system and will push him (it's still 90% male in the engineering/polytechnique circuit; it 's more balanced at ENA). Nevertheless, the social origins of recent alumni have steadily deteriorated (i.e. the proportion of children not from upper class parents has been going down). Sciences Po, which is the main feeder school for ENA, took a the drastic step a few years ago to give a specific access route to kids from a number of high schools from poor/defavorised areas, and it's been a resounding success.
The fact is that the system does collect most of the brightest students of each generation, because it is geared to do that, and it uses criteria which are pretty objective: understanding of maths and ability (and willingness) to work very hard (pretty much non stop for 2 years after the baccalauréat). For administrative, technical, engineering, managerial positions, these are not silly criteria. When you hire someone with one of the recognised diploma, you know exactly what you get: people that understand things quickly, work well and are generally competent. Some even have an open mind. Many are really amazingly talented.
In the old system, the State used to grab most of the students from the top schools (it still gets the énarques and all the corpsards from polytechnique, which all are civil servants and owe the State 10 years of work as payment for their studies - you get paid while studying, and you get first class teachers). A portion of the polytechniciens, and all the graduate from other schools have always gone to the private sector, but now, increasingly, the énarques and corpsards go there as well, sometimes before the end of their 10 years (you can do it if you pay the State back). Some of that has been linked to the privatisations of the past 20 years, which transferred a number of the top jobs to the private sector (but it was still the same people that got them, using the same criteria...), and some to the lure of better paid jobs in finance, for younger people. In a word, the State used to get all the best minds of the country, not an increasing number go to the private sector. To some extent, it's irrelevant, because the alumni networks are extraordinarily strong, and they ensure that "their" guys still get all the good jobs in France, but the logic of serving the State and the country has been severely weakened, and the privileged access to pwoer and money dominates over the ethos of the common good which used to be very strong.
I hope this makes sense. Feel free to ask more questions.