The French elite: where it went wrong

Image of Simon Kuper

The French Stalinist Maurice Thorez spent the second world war in Moscow, where he called himself “Ivanov”. When France was liberated, he came home and entered government. After Charles de Gaulle stepped down as French leader in 1946, Thorez picked up one of the general’s pet projects: the creation of a school, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, to train the new republic’s top bureaucrats. This caste, Thorez must have thought, was the “vanguard of the proletariat” that Lenin had always talked about. ENA has since produced countless members of the French political and financial elite, culminating in President François Hollande.

Elite-bashing in France dates back to the guillotine but the “énarques” and their buddies are currently at an all-time low. Within a single year, governments of both right and left have become despised. France has record unemployment. Elite scandals keep coming (most recently, around the budget minister, Jérôme Cahuzac, with his secret Swiss bank account). Something has gone horribly wrong for Thorez’s caste.

The French elite is defined by its brains. It’s largely recruited from just two rigidly selective schools: ENA and the Ecole Polytechnique (known to alumni simply as “X”). “Nowhere else in the world does the question of where you go to school so utterly determine your professional career – and the destiny of an entire nation,” writes Peter Gumbel in his new book France’s Got Talent. That’s why some elite members introduce themselves into old age as, for instance, “former pupil of the Polytechnique”.

Only 80 students a year graduate from ENA, and another 400 from the Polytechnique. They then get very demanding jobs. “They work hard. It’s not an elite that is just about relaxing,” emphasises Pierre Forthomme, an executive coach who deals with many elite members.

For decades, the elite delivered. From 1946 through 1973, France experienced its trente glorieuses, (nearly) 30 years of economic success. Even in 1990, the elite could still make great claims. It had built the first proto-internet, Minitel; installed Europe’s fastest trains; co-created the world’s fastest passenger plane, Concorde; pushed Germany into creating the euro (which the French elite then thought was the start of European unity, not the end of it); established its own independent military option that many people still took seriously; and continued to imagine it spoke an international language. Rule by brain-workers seemed to work.

Since then, things have gone horribly wrong. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu in the 1960s began pointing out the elite’s flaw: the ruling class claimed to be a meritocracy open to bright people from anywhere but had, in fact, become a self-reproducing caste.

This is the tiniest elite of any large country. It lives in a few select arrondissements in Paris. Its children attend the same local schools, starting at age three. By their early twenties, France’s future leaders know each other. They progress from “classmates” to “caste mates”, explain the sociologists Monique Pinçon-Charlot and her husband Michel Pinçon.

Whereas an American CEO and novelist will never meet, the French political, business and cultural elites have practically fused. They meet at breakfasts, exhibition openings and dinner parties. They become friends or spouses. They give each other jobs, cover up each other’s transgressions, write rave reviews of each other’s books. (Contrast the euphoria that greets Bernard-Henri Lévy’s books in France with his reception abroad.)

The elite is the only French class that displays class solidarity, says Pinçon-Charlot. It’s tied together by shared secrets: for instance, many elite members knew about Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s peculiar bedroom practices, but they were willing to let him run for president rather than inform the peasants beyond the Parisian ring road. To paraphrase the English writer E.M. Forster, these people would rather betray their country than betray a friend. Elite members justify these mutual favours in the name of friendship. In fact (as noted by the journalist Serge Halimi and others), it’s corruption.

Equally dangerously, such a tiny caste – drawn from the same few schools – inevitably suffers from groupthink. Nor do elite members encounter many underlings who dare offer alternative views. Forthomme explains: “If you are a senior executive coming from a top school in France, you don’t get feedback. They are alone.” He adds: “These people would welcome feedback and teamwork. They don’t want to be alone, but the system puts them in this place of power, so that we can bash the elite for our problems.”

Globalisation has hurt, too. The French elite wasn’t trained to succeed in the world; it was trained to succeed in central Paris. Hollande, who attended three elite schools, is now discovering the world as president. His state visit to China last month was the first time he’d ever set foot there. Nowadays many French do succeed in London, New York or Silicon Valley, but they tend to be lost to the French elite.

The elite isn’t about to dissolve itself. However, an even worse outcome looms: the election in 2017 of the first truly anti-elitist president, the far right’s Marine Le Pen.

Twitter @KuperSimon

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