Will scrapping the ENA fix the broken social elevator?

In his official response to journalists gathered at the Elysee Palace on 25 April, French President Emmanuel Macron reaffirmed the abrogation of the National School of Administration or ENA as part of his response to the demands of the Yellow Jackets for more equality and social justice.

A brief flashback

Although the idea of the ENA was originally formulated by the French minister of education 1936-38, Jean Zay, its actual creation was postponed until 1945 and during the presidency of General Charles de Gaulle. The project of the School was carried out by Maurice Thorez (the head of French Communist Party) and its statute was drafted by Michel Debré (the first director of ENA and later the prime minister in 1959-62).

The ENA was to embody the aspirations of French politicians and society for the much-needed reforms in public administration following World War II.

The main aims of the School were quite progressive, reflecting the French Republican foundation of equality. To improve public service, the School was to serve as a ‘means of verification’ by:

  • • Providing a uniform and hence verifiable – in terms of quality and relevance – form of training for those willing to serve in the highest administrative posts.

  • • Facilitating participative equity and equal access for all members of French society who desired to serve the nation based on their merit and not their family and social background as was the case prior to the creation of the ENA.

Did the School achieve its initial aims? Wearing rose-coloured glasses we could say ‘Yes’, but only to a certain extent and not until the 1960-70s.

According to the 2015 study of Luc Rouban, ENA or 70 Years of Paradox, between 2005 and 2014 the proportion of the School’s students from higher social backgrounds had increased to 70% compared to the 45% in the 1950-60s, which means ENA never actually achieved its goal of equality and social mobility, even in its early years of creation.

The paradox seems to lie in limiting access to the highest public and private functions in the country through only one school and at the same time wishfully imagining that this would ensure social mobility.

A recycled message

Macron’s announcement of the abolition of the ENA is a strategic communication and political manoeuvre more than a demonstration of a willingness for a profound reform based on social mobility.

His message responds to the ever-present revolutionary urge of French society for equality. It creates a sense of satisfaction – a sort of joyful nirvana, if you will – which reminds the masses of a victorious historical moment when they won the battle against the elite in the 1789 Revolution and publicly guillotined their monarchs.

The French president is certainly not the first to point the finger at the ENA. The School has long been blamed for France’s ills. There have been multiple reflections in recent years on the need to reform the selective entry exam and the curriculum of ENA as a way to increase social mobility and to ensure a higher quality of education, as set forth in the 2018 report of the Senate, for example.

The School itself has made some symbolic but clearly unsuccessful efforts to diversify its student body, for instance, by proposing new entrance exams for those holding a doctorate.

Yet this non-ending cycle of reflection, reforms, political discussions and sociological analysis has not caused any kind of revolution in the reproduction of the French elite.

One of the earliest of the series of criticisms dates back to 1964 and the sociological analysis of Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron in their book called Les Héritiers that is still the source of social mobility concern after more than 50 years, as Laurent Mauduit discusses in his 2018 book La Caste.

In 1967, three ENA students, Jean-Pierre Chevènement, Alain Gomez and Didier Motchane, coined the term ‘Enarchie’– to rhyme with ‘hierarchie’ in French – in their critical book of the School and its bourgeois mandarins.

In 1991, during her short-lived days as the prime minister of Francois Mitterrand, Edith Cresson decided to move ENA to Strasbourg to distance it from the Parisian centre of power; and Jacques Chirac, a former ENA student himself, did not hesitate in using an anti-ENA discourse during his presidential election in 1995, as did other politicians such as Nicolas Sarkozy and Laurent Fabius as well as the current minister of economics, Bruno Le Maire, during his presidential campaign in 2016.

Therefore Macron’s intention to suppress the ENA is simply a Chomskyan communication strategy to distract and comfort the masses and perhaps an economic decision, as the School has a €3 million (US$3.4 million) deficit, according to Le Parisien.

No quick fixes

Fixing the broken social elevator in French higher education as part of a proper response to the rightful demands of the yellow jackets for equality of access and success will not be achieved by eliminating the ENA, because the ENA is merely the quintessence of an elitism that is deeply institutionalised in France’s education system.

Removing the ENA from the higher education landscape in France is, at best, cosmetic surgery. It is like guillotining the monarch without addressing the underlying causes of inequality.

This won’t eviscerate the institutionalised social Darwinism that takes place from the very early stages of its education system where only 30% of the children from lower social classes enter pre-school education, according to a recent study published in the OECD blog.

This lack of equal opportunities is later maintained through the division of high school fields into professional and general studies. Students from lower social backgrounds usually end up in the former and hence in lower-paid jobs, which means it would take six generations for them to gain an average decent income, according to the same study.

Students are further segregated through the contested preparatory classes for grandes écoles that create an illusion of meritocracy while they are nothing but the means of reproducing the elite.

It is, of course, more than necessary and legitimate for Macron to question the eligibility, quality and relevance of the ENA. But its cosmetic removal or even a change in its name can in no way guarantee social mobility and equal opportunity.

The ENA’s original aims are still valid today, perhaps even more than before, but it takes a real strategic operational plan – and not further debates or committees – to reform education policy, its governance, quality and teaching and assessment practices to undo elitism.

Dr Juliette Torabian is a senior international adviser in education and sustainable development. Her research mainly focuses on comparative higher education (policy and governance), social justice and gender equality.