Elite graduate school to put English in entry exams

The often-maligned French graduate school for top civil servants, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is on track to introduce English into the competitive entrance exam in 2018, director Nathalie Loiseau said last Wednesday.

Gone should be the days of blunders by top French civil servants and politicians, such as ENA graduate and French President François Hollande, who congratulated US President Barack Obama on his re-election in 2012 with a message signed “Friendly, Hollande”.

The addition of English will be just one more step in the school’s reform, which began in 2009 with the aim of promoting diversity and equal opportunity and countering recurrent allegations of elitism and being out of touch with reality.

ENA was created by General Charles de Gaulle in 1945 to train a new generation of civil servants that would help rebuild the French state and administration from the wreckage left by the German occupation in World War II.

But rather than being confined to the administration, the alumni are frequently frowned upon for populating the upper echelons of politics and big business, and bringing a conformity of thought with them. Loiseau dismisses these claims.

Only 1% of former students are in politics, and 5% are in companies, she told the Anglo-American Press Association of Paris.

Loiseau, a career diplomat and feminist, was appointed in 2012, and is the second woman to head up ENA after Marie-Françoise Bechtel in 2000-02.

She has pursued the reforms already underway, but acknowledges that more remains to be done on the diversity stakes and to ensure that graduates “know how to ask the right question rather than find the right response”.

Already in place are a year’s fully financed preparatory class for 15 students from modest backgrounds and internships covering 12 of the 24 months of the basic course. Some of these are abroad, some are in France and take place in companies to enable students to “understand the interaction between the public and private sectors”.

This should help them break down the mistrust that has built up between the two over the past decade or two, Loiseau says.

Partnerships with universities and other establishments, as part of the wider higher education and research reform in France, are also opening ENA up to the outside world.

Discrimination against women

Women still represent only 30% of the students on average, and the fact that most of the overall intake comes from middle-class families, many of them teachers, “is a form of discrimination”. Social codes, which tend to be particularly severe for women, need to be explicit rather than implicit if student recruitment is to be diversified further, Loiseau adds.

Encouragement at school is key, since it is almost always a teacher who encourages pupils to apply to ENA.

This year’s students will be asked to visit secondary schools to explain why they opted for this particular grande école, despite the lower earning potential in the public rather than private sector, at least in the early career stages.

The students will also need to revise their vocabulary, says Loiseau. “The usual words such as ‘sacrifice’, ‘vocation’ and ‘commitment’ sound half religious, half military,” she said.