2 June 2013

Peter Gumbel on French Elitism

Énarques and Les X have come up before in posts here relating to France’s elite. So as soon as it became available last month I bought Peter Gumbel’s France’s Got Talent: The Woeful Consequences of French Elitism to read on Kindle. It had appeared in France in print as Élite Academy: Enquête sur la France malade de ses grandes écoles. Gumbel arrived in Paris in 2002 as a correspondent for TIME and began teaching at Sciences Po in 2005. Eventually he was appointed Director of Communications by the Director, Richard Descoings, who died suddenly in New York in 2012 at the age of 53. To describe Descoings’ regime at Sciences Po as controversial would probably be an understatement and for many French readers part of the interest of Gumbel’s book will be its outsider-on-the-inside’s view of Descoings and his wife Nadia Marik and the way things were run.  

Gumbel could have arranged his material more carefully to help readers unfamiliar with the anatomy of France’s elite and the grandes écoles where they are trained. The latter are introduced as:
… the most prestigious grandes écoles, especially the École Polytechnique, for science, or the École Normale Supérieure, for humanities …(location 84)
And then Sciences Po appears without description at the funeral of:
… the director of Sciences Po, who had been found dead …(location 102)
We learn a little later about ENA because Descoing:
… sat the competitive entrance exam for the École nationale d’administration (ENA) not once but three time before he succeeded. (location 129)
But it's more complicated::
… the typical French system of grandes écoles to which just 5% of young people are admitted. Even in this highly selective universe there is a strict hierarchy. Two institutions dominate: the École Polytechnique, known to insiders by the initial X, which was founded in 1794, and ENA, founded in 1945. Together the graduates of these two schools – 400 from X and 80 from ENA every year – represent just 0.057% of their age group, a proportion so miniscule it could be a statistical error. Yet they dominate the top echelons of French business and politics to an astonishing degree. (location 271)
Shortly afterwards we learn that the graduates of ENA are known as énarques (location 296). But what has happened to the École Normale Supérieure, and where does Sciences Po fit in? Gumbel makes a good case that the French system of selecting and training a small elite who then run everything is becoming increasingly dysfunctional. Partly because its entry is more about exclusivity than merit:
Just as most énarques went through Sciences Po, …
… so it is that the overwhelming majority of students at École Polytechnique went to just five classes préparatoires – two-year cram schools that prepare for the grandes écoles and are an ultra-selective alternative to a regular university. Three of them are in the 5th and 6th arrondissements of Paris, the lycées Henri-IV, Louis-le-Grand and Saint-Louis, and the other two, the lycées Hoche and Saint-Genevieve (better known as “Ginette”), are in Versailles. Every year, Ginette alone sends more than 80 students to Polytechnique, out of the 400 who are accepted. By comparison in Britain, students from the top 100 schools only make up one third of those who get into Oxbridge. (location 365)
So whose children get access to these exclusive prépas?
… children from well-off families still account for almost 70% of registered students at Sciences Po, and the proportion of students whose parents are managers or work in an “intellectually superior” profession actually increased between 2005 and 2011. (location 1883)
Their choice of bac subjects, by the way, will be influenced by the coefs (coefficients, weightings in the overall score) which they carry. Difficult subjects like maths and the dreaded philo have the highest. The only UK equivalent I’m aware of is Cambridge University’s list of “suitable” A levels. The dominance and self-perpetuation of this Parisian elite would be no surprise to Charles Murray whose analysis of diminishing social mobility in the USA, I posted about last year.

In due course, for some lucky énarques and Les X (as polytechniciens are known but Gumbel omits to say), glittering prizes await:
… the VIP treatment accorded to the alumni of these two schools after they have graduated. For the 15 ENA graduates and the 60 or so polytechniciens who come top of their year, the reward is membership of the grands corps d’État (grand state corps) – the Conseil d’État, the Cour des comptes and the Inspection générale des finances (the General Inspectorate of Finance – or of the exclusive technical corps, especially the Corps des mines, the mining corps. Those who join these corps are given entry-level jobs that are already very lofty, and their careers thereafter are fast-tracked. This world of the professional corps, with its entrenched system of privilege, simply doesn’t exist in other countries. (location 402)
Things are changing:
… thirty years ago, about 200 of the 320 graduates joined one of the prestigious state technical corps, in the first place the Corps des mines or the Corps des Ponts et Chausées. Today the total number of French students is up to 400 while those joining a corps has dropped to about 60-70. (location 1843)
Largely because they go on to private sector jobs instead. By the way, as explained here last August, the corps des ingénieurs des ponts et chaussées has become the corps des ingénieurs des ponts, des eaux et des forêts, and also the corps des mines covers a much wider range of technology than mining nowadays.

The main thrust of Gumbel’s book, to which he devotes a whole Chapter (6 – The Small World Phenomenon) is that, however well this institutionalised elitism may have served France in the past, it is increasingly inappropriate and he cites various analyses and numerous statistics to support his view. He goes on to describe some of the changes that are needed, particularly in the grandes écoles and some of the reforms that are already in place. His final warning is:
That the most powerful elites can be brought down if they fail to adjust to a changing world. That arrogance and defiance won’t guarantee longevity, or even courage. That even the cream can turn rancid. (location 2227)
I’m not sure that Gumbel, who taught journalism at Sciences Po is as au fait with the École Polytechnique, the technical corps and ParisTech as he is with the world of the social sciences. About 15 years ago I got to know some young French corps members who had spent time at MIT and Caltech on Master’s degrees, a recent development in Sciences Po apparently. As to whether the following is a bad thing:
The election of President Hollande in May 2012 sparked days of scrambling as the ministerial cabinets started to be constituted. One friend was in the thick of it, juggling calls from hundreds of people who were pitching their candidacy. The most striking, he recalls, was the call that came from the Corps des Mines. The message was “this is the name of the technical adviser for your cabinet”. There was no discussion of who this person was and whether he would be suitable for the post. (location 429)
Well, the iron grip of the technical corps would never allow France to get into the situation of the USA with its 70,000 structurally deficient bridges. Again, it is EDF Energy, majority-owned by the French government, that the UK is having to negotiate with for the construction of new nuclear power stations. According to the Financial Times (£):
… [HM] Treasury offered EDF a strike price of £80 per megawatt hour, while EDF had been holding out for a price of just below £100/MWh, about twice the current wholesale price of power. People close to the negotiations say a potential compromise would lie somewhere in the middle. It is understood that EDF could be encouraged to settle for a lower strike price if the government underwrote some elements of the project. This would reduce the amount of capital invested on which EDF earned a 10 per cent return, but would remove some risk from its balance sheet.
which doesn’t make the UK position sound too clever. (A MWh is 1000 kilowatt/hours which cost you and me about £130 at present).

Anyone who is at all interested in understanding the way France is run (or is negotiating MWh with EDF) should download a copy of France’s Got Talent. Peter Gumbel has done a great service in making his insider’s view available to other English-speakers – the French version will hopefully be a timely contribution to debate among les citoyennes as well.

NOTES: As usual I have put French words in italics in my text; Gumbel doesn’t, so not in the quotations from his (but elite and corps are no longer French words, I think). A Kindle download is an awkward thing to use for any serious purpose, it seems to me, by comparison with hard copy. The locations are as a consequence approximate, but should take readers to the relevant passage.

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