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Macron’s fake war on the elites The French President's cynical rebranding will not convince anyone

CHARLES PLATIAU/AFP via Getty Images)


April 13, 2021   5 mins

Emmanuel Macron has invented a new form of murder — Alma Matricide, the abolition of one’s own place of learning. The Ecole National d’Administration, ENA, the legendary finishing school of the French political elite, is to be suppressed by its most successful son.

On paper, it seems like a straightforward political win. ENA is France’s most prestigious seat of higher education; an officer-training school for senior civil servants which has produced many leading politicians and (more rarely these days) captains of industry. In terms of its preservation of the elite, the closest British comparison might be Eton and Oxford — combined.

Indeed, when General Charles de Gaulle created ENA in 1945, his primary aim was to train a new, meritocratic elite, to replace the social elite whom he believed had betrayed France in 1940. By the 1990s, however, ENA was accused of a new form of betrayal: the creation of a self-perpetuating oligarchy which prevented more practical or inventive talent from rising in the French system.

Since then, the destruction of ENA has become a theme of French politics. The school has been constantly reformed, reduced in size and moved from Paris to Strasbourg. In fact, the all-powerful ENA of legend probably ceased to exist years ago. And yet it has remained a symbol of a know-it-all, elitist French state, with President Macron as its most perfect manifestation.

Macron graduated from ENA in 2004. A dozen years later he became President of the Republic. Laurent Fabius took only 11 years from graduation to become Socialist prime minister (1984-6). Jacques Chirac was an énarque. So was ValĂ©ry Giscard d’Estaing, François Hollande and more than a third of the prime ministers of the Fifth Republic.

And yet despite its reputation, ENA is not fee-paying. In theory, it’s open to people of all backgrounds: the 80 students in each year class are paid a salary by the state. Entry is based on tough exams after two years of “prĂ©pas” (preparatory courses). Once they’re in, the 80 students are graded from 1 to 80, with those in the top 15 — the “botte” or boot — admitted directly into a kind of praetorian guard of the French civil service, les grand corps, when they graduate. They are guaranteed a senior job and salary for life. (For what it’s worth, Macron came 5th in his year.)

Although theoretically a place of learning, ENA is actually a place of permanent examination — of stress-testing — rather than education. An ENA graduate once told me: “You learn nothing… It’s a system for grading you, for deciding how well you will cope with the kinds of problems that might be thrown at you.” Another well-known product of ENA in the late 1980s told me: “It was a machine for discovering how flexible your spine was. If it wasn’t flexible, you didn’t do well in the final classification.”

The Covid crisis offers evidence both for and against the ENA effect. France has got many things wrong during the last year, partly because its administrative culture is so ponderous and averse to risk. And yet, on the other hand, its state-funded economic support programme has been exemplary and much copied (including by Britain). That was shaped by Macron (ENA 2002-4), his then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (ENA 1995-7) and most of all by his finance minister, Bruno Le Maire (ENA 1996-8).

Even so, ENA remains shorthand for the gulf between a struggling rural and inner suburban France and the administrative, political classes who are viewed as too abstract and too arrogant to grasp the harsh realities of daily life. Macron’s decision to suppress ENA from June and replace it with another smaller college, the Institut du service public or ISP, therefore made political sense.

Stymied by the pandemic, it is the only high-profile reform he can realistically offer before the presidential election next spring. Not that it hasn’t been a long time coming; Macron promised the death of ENA during the Gilets Jaunes’s rural and suburban revolt against the elite in 2018-9. But doing it now fits in with Macron’s wider campaign to seem less arrogant and aloof, along with his apology for failing to grasp sooner the need for a rapid roll-out of Covid vaccines. Destroying ENA in its present form also fits the original Macroniste offer and vision from 2017 of making France a land of opportunity — a can-do, start-up country where top jobs in government are open to clever young people from forgotten rural France and the struggling, multi-racial banlieues.

Though hardly reported, Macron has made other advances in that direction in recent months. Two policies have been introduced to fight social and racial discrimination and allow capable young people from rural or suburban backgrounds to climb the ladder more rapidly in state jobs. In other words, the suppression of ENA will be deployed in Macron’s election campaign next spring as a way of saying: “I have started to open up and change France for the better. The pandemic got in the way — so give me more time to complete the job.”

In truth, however, abolishing ENA is more like a burial than a murder. The school has ceased in recent years to be the ultimate pinnacle of ambition for hyper-clever, young 20-somethings in France. “ENA was once the place you had to go to prove yourself and to be sure of success. No more,” one 2016 graduate told me. “Young people now strive to go to the HEC (the top French business school) or Polytechnique (the elite engineering college). They used to ‘do ENA’ afterwards. Now they want to go to McKinsey or to Silicon Valley and then come back to France to start their own business.”

Another recent student said that he had learned since graduating that ENA no longer has the same mystique within the French political and administrative system. Ministries, he said, were turning to the big consultancy firms, such as McKinsey, to make the strategic decisions that énarques once made. “Macron’s decision fits this pattern, I fear. It’s part of a trend that’s been going on for several years to downgrade the importance of the senior French administration, to move away from a specifically French approach to French problems and become more international. In the long run, I think that’s something France will regret.”

Is it still the case that, as I was told, you “learn nothing at ENA”?

“That’s certainly true of the 18 months you spend within the walls of ENA itself in Strasbourg, yes,” said my first source. “In the preparatory courses, you learn things. In the two six-month placements in France and abroad, you learn a great deal. But once you’re in Strasbourg, you are incessantly tested and, I would say, taught only that to succeed you must conform.”

The former student, who asked not to be named, was an atypical énarque, the only one in his year who came from a working-class family. “ENA was my dream from the age of 16,” he said. “It was the way I thought I could succeed in life. When I got there, I detested the place. Why? Because the whole ENA approach is detestable.”

After working for several years in government, he left to start his own business. My other informant still works in government but has started to build a political career for himself in the provinces because, he says, “being an énarque no longer helps you so much as all that”.

And so Macron’s decision is not the revolution that he claims — it is more like a recognition of changes that are already happening. Its replacement’s college will be housed in the same building and will have many of the same teachers. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that there will be only 40 students, not 80; hardly a sign that it will be more open.

How they will be selected is still unclear, possibly by high achievement in relation to their social background, rather than just by competitive exam. This approach has already been tried with some success at “Science-Po”, France’s “political university” which sends many of its graduates to ENA. The numbered classification will remain but the top 15 graduates will no longer enter the praetorian ranks of the state service directly. They will have to prove themselves in more lowly work for five years first.

But will replacing the ENA alone help France to become the land of opportunity that Macron promises? Hardly. France has a baffling system of “first and second divisions” in higher education which will remain largely intact. State university courses, medicine and law apart, are inexpensive, easy to reach but extremely variable in quality. And clever students from well-off families aspire instead to go to a separate archipelago of state-run Grandes Ecoles, like Polytechnique, or to private, fee-paying business schools, like HEC. To reach them, two years of preparatory classes are needed.

Replacing ENA might remove the topmost pinnacle of the mountain. But for the great majority of French youngsters, the slopes to success will remain as forbiddingly steep as ever.


John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.

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Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago

As a personal input, I have learned over many years that being clever is basically bad. Given the choice in any job between a clever applicant and a hard-working applicant I would always choose the latter.
People who are clever have things too easy. They become lazy because they expect the world to change for them, they become vindictive if they lose a battle, instead of struggling on to win the war. They often have wonderful ideas but lack common sense; they can be fantastic individually but can’t work in a team. I see the wokes of the Left as ‘clever’ people, people who have wonderful theories but can’t apply them properly. The Right are usually prepared to work but lose battles against the Left who seem slicker and have instant answers.
Only ‘clever’ people could think of getting rid of the police and prisons; only clever people could make an argument for letting in more immigrants on purpose; only ‘clever’ people can be against all history.
The problem in our universities now is that the students are encouraged to think of themselves as ‘clever’ but they really need to be workers in order to achieve anything. I agree that there are inventors out there, people who have changed the world by a scientific idea – but before having the idea they have usually plugged away at a series of bad ideas and have never given up the fight.
Give me a hard-working, boring person any time.

Last edited 3 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

It depends how you define ‘clever’. I’ve learnt over the years to be sceptical of anyone who has a University education, because the universities (certainly over the last 20 years) seem to be adept at producing imbeciles, no matter how intelligent they were when they went in. The seeming requirement to have a degree for any job is just stupid: as a matter of principle I always look more closely at those who have NOT had a university education because it is there that I have found the best staff. They seem to be able to think, innovate and problem solve in a way the ‘educated’ seem incapable of doing.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. I went to university but my father spent many years trying to persuade me to get a job instead. With hindsight he was right because I am a very hard worker.

John Williams
John Williams
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

Impressive, Andy. The problem is that most employers/recruiters don’t think like you – they use a university degree as a lazy discrimination tool for even the simplest of jobs. Les clercs have won and society as a whole suffers because of it.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  John Williams

Your right John, far too many employers (in)Human Resource departments look at degree’s that way. Working in a University it’s amazing just how many useless graduates H.R. send us for skilled job interviews, though it’s often as case that they are ‘our’ graduates (from other departments) unable to find a job anywhere else, so they’d rather have us employ them than have them as a failure (NEETs in lower education terms). When we’re recruiting PhD students we take the top 1%, of the top 1% world wide in related STEM fields, to interview, in a good year we might recruit 25 worthy candidates.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

There is a difference between clever and educated. Yes you need a degree of intelligence to be able to learn and regurgitate information but it doesn’t mean you have the ability to understand what you have learned, what you should do with it or if it is of any value to yourself and the rest of the world. There are many other ways to learn than formal education.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

We have a saying in the States – too clever by half. It seems to describe the clever class that you describe. So does the fact that almost all of their wonderful ideas are so wonderful that they must be mandatory.

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Oh, we have that saying over here too 😉

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

I see the woke left more as stupid people, not clever.
Stupid people who think they are clever, and over-educated in stuff that is wrong, like Critical Race Theory.

Tom Fox
Tom Fox
3 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Ridiculous generalisations in the main.

Ian Barton
Ian Barton
3 years ago

ENA seems tailor-made to generate EU Commissioners …

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Ian Barton

Yes, you are right about that and Yannis Varoufakis makes the same point in his book ‘And The Weak Suffer What They Must?”. Essentially, the EU machinery exists so that these people can have very well paid non-jobs in Brussels overseeing the descent of Europe into the pauper’s grave of history.

Nicolas Jouan
Nicolas Jouan
3 years ago

As usual with my country’s ideas, the ENA is good in theory but bad in practice. Even when the graduates’ heart is in a good place, the structure of this school generates the ‘entre-soi’ that is not only deleterious from a sociological perspective but also generates an unimaginative and narrow-minded “elite.” These same people end up in the administration and also leading the French industry, as the article states. I wouldn’t know exactly what to do to replace it, but I take an Oxbridge system with all its flaws over the ENA any time.
I’m not even mentioning that French tax payers literally end up paying the Golden Ticket of ENA students who overwhelmingly have upper class background. You frankly couldn’t make that up. Again, good idea but bad in practice.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Nicolas Jouan

To be honest it doesn’t even seem to be a good idea, just a scam by which those from upper class backgrounds ease themselves into the top jobs and find ways to make things miserable for everyone else. The PPP scam at Oxbridge is no different.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I too was about to point out that Oxbridge, like other universities, has degrees I don’t recognise as such, and degrees I do.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Surely PPE?

Toby Josh
Toby Josh
3 years ago

No, that’s personal protective equipment. The COVID arguments are on different articles.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Toby Josh

Sorry, I thought it was Politics, Philosophy Economics, that tired old Oxford ‘Gentleman’s. Degree, so beloved of our political class of self serving parasites..

Last edited 3 years ago by Charles Stanhope
David K. Warner
David K. Warner
3 years ago

We actually have our own version of Ă©narques in Oxford PPE graduates, a group who seem to be disproportionately represented among the political, administrative, and media elites, and who, in spite of the peak of incompetence they presented when dominating the Brown cabinet (as their forbears had dominated in the similarly flawed Wilson’s, himself the top PPEist of his year) still exert excessive and unwarranted influence in this country.
For English Ă©narques, with their superficial intellectualism and glibness, one only has to look at those PPEists who sit at the top table of our decrepit political parties, with Hancock and Sunak, in their differing ways, the exemplars of unjustified Tory technocratic arrogance, and the hapless Dodds and Reeves, multiple Milibands, and Ed Davey similar examples among the opposition.
To see a PPE mind at work, one only need read Cameron’s ethically void psuedo-apology for his lobbying practices and attempts to influence his fellow PPE elitists at the Treasury and DHSC.
If Macron succeeds in ridding France of the ENA cultists, who will then seize a similar opportunity to dispense with our own anglo-Ă©narques and rid us of the PPE degree, sadly increasingly entrenched at other universities, before even greater damage is done by these exclusionary gnostics of public policy.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

ENA can’t be particularly elite if If a total moron like Hollande was able to get in. In that sense it is rather like Oxbridge, many of whose denizens are extremely dim.

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

True, but then again Macron is hardly a glowing advert for the place. I’ve always regarded him as a complete weirdo.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

To be fair to Macron he has sometimes asked the right questions, which puts him way ahead of most western politicians. He has yet, however, to come up with any of the right answers, and time is running out.

Tom Graham
Tom Graham
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If someone like Richard Burgon can get into, and graduate from, Cambridge University, then the concept of Elite universities has no meaning any more.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

It has long since ceased to have any meaning. Remember, both Ed Miliband and Diane Abbott graduated from Oxbridge! That was in the 1980s, or perhaps earlier in Abbott’s case. And I myself have known some Oxbridge graduates who were none too bright. My teachers wanted me to apply but I wanted nothing to do with these people.

Neil John
Neil John
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

When offer Oxford in ’76 I turned it down, took the apprenticeship route as I knew I’d never have fitted in, though maggie screwed up the job I would have had when I completed that trade training has apart from a few months kept me and my family reasonably well fed.

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
3 years ago
Reply to  Tom Graham

I’m taken aback. Burgon went to Cambridge?

Andy Yorks
Andy Yorks
3 years ago

I regret to inform you that he did. St. John’s where he read English Literature. He then became an employment lawyer.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

Cambridge and to a lesser extent Oxford have been a cesspit of traitors since at least 1920.

Cambridge also revelled in the dubious delights of sodomy, particularly in the 1930’S via that elite ‘ Buggers Cub’ – the ‘Apostles’. Marxism and Sodomy proved a very effective cocktail for those who wished to be thought of as ‘smart’.

Prior to this off course both were pretty worthless
‘Priest Factories’ for the established Anglican Church.

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
3 years ago
Reply to  Andy Yorks

Along the way he mastered the art of foaming at the mouth about Israel at gender separated mosques..

Jonathan Andrews
Jonathan Andrews
3 years ago

Not that I have much to do with it but plenty of students from my (independent) school get Oxbridge places. And, in fairness to them, they are usually pretty good – they usually seem to offer more than an ability to pass exams.

The trouble is that nothing can prepare people for a working life full of complexity save humility. What I would like to see from those in influential positions is not what they think they can do to make the world a better place but how that can transfer power and responsibility back to individuals, families and small communities.

Grand and clever plans are usually failures.

Pierre Whalon
Pierre Whalon
3 years ago

Of course, you omit that Macron had written that ENA should be abolished back in 2004.

Peter Lockyer
Peter Lockyer
3 years ago

I’m not sure that replacing ENA as a factory for the elite with McKinsey is much of an improvement. Didn’t Dido Harding of the hapless world beating track and trace + TalkTalk IT leaks also work at McKinsey, along with many other ‘high achievers’? Elites are always going to be subject of resentment and suspicion by ‘ordinary’ people. But every society seems to want and need them. Getting rid of ENA will achieve very little I fear.

Last edited 3 years ago by Peter Lockyer
Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
3 years ago

I have no idea whether it’s good or bad, but I suspect that another aspect would be making contacts, or the potential for introductions.

Jeremy Smith
Jeremy Smith
3 years ago

ENA or not countries/societies will always have an elite. The question will always be: is the elite good or bad?
Western world (I would say Japan too) for whatever reason have produced a reasonably good elite that has managed to keep self dealing to a minimum. Ever since the 60s (we have become more democratic) the elite has slowly gone downhill.

Charles Walker
Charles Walker
3 years ago

If any university produced, say, doctors or engineers who were as incompetent in their field as the ppe graduates of Oxbridge it would be shut down.

LCarey Rowland
LCarey Rowland
3 years ago

Merci beaucoup, John, for your analysis. We could a little bit of this knocking the meritocracy down a notch or two over here on the other side of the pond. Perhaps our President Biden will initiate a similar reconstruction project for the ladder of success.