Feature

France: Ruled by a tiny clique

The “self-proclaimed inventor of liberty and equality” is actually the most elitist country in Europe.

The “self-proclaimed inventor of liberty and equality” is actually the most elitist country in Europe, said John Lichfield in The Independent (U.K.). According to a new book by Paris-based British writer Peter Gumbel, France is being run—and run into the ground—by a selfish, self-perpetuating elite. He faults the grandes écoles, the elite set of schools that “makes Eton and Oxbridge or the Ivy League look like a utopian experiment in social leveling.” Virtually every French political leader is a graduate of the École Nationale d’Administration, which graduates only 100 students a year compared with Oxford and Cambridge’s 6,000 combined. Just about every industry leader and cultural luminary is a graduate of the École Polytechnique or a few other schools. The system is “a machine for perpetuating a brilliant but blinkered, often arrogant and frequently incompetent ruling freemasonry.”

These schools were supposed to promote a meritocracy, said Simon Kuper in the Financial Times. Instead they have created “a self-reproducing caste” that constitutes the tiniest elite of any large country. Its members live in a few Parisian neighborhoods and go to the same schools, starting at age 3. “Whereas an American CEO and novelist will never meet, the French political, business, and cultural elites have practically fused.” They are all friends, and they cover for one another. Everyone knew, for example, about “Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s peculiar bedroom practices,” but they kept it quiet until his spectacular arrest on rape charges in 2011. This clannishness promotes groupthink—and corruption. In just the latest scandal, ex–Budget Minister Jérôme Cahuzac was hiding a Swiss bank account, and the president knew of it for months. He was fired only when it became public.

French companies, too, “are obsessed with diplomas,” said Arnaud Gonzague in Le Nouvel Observateur (France). Having one of the top schools on your résumé will secure you jobs your whole life. In contrast, a brilliant record of work experience won’t be enough to get you an interview if you don’t have the right degree. Fortunately, it’s finally dawning on French businesses that this is a problem, said Olivier Rollot in Le Monde (France). Hidebound thinking stifles innovation and competitiveness. That’s why a dozen of the largest French firms, including the train company SNCF and France Télécom-Orange have signed a manifesto pledging to hire more non–grandes écoles grads. They believe that “those who overcame many obstacles are more resilient than those who had it easy.”

This problem won’t be solved by a few companies hiring plebes, said Gero von Randow in Die Zeit (Germany). The French class structure permeates the entire state, as it has since the time of Cardinal Richelieu. France is governed on a top-down principle “that the nation’s interests are defined in Paris and enforced by an army of bureaucrats.” One out of four employees works directly for the state or for state-owned enterprises. The grandes écoles grads perch at the very top of this pyramid, secure in the belief that they know everyone who matters. To loosen their stranglehold will require “nothing less than a revolution.”

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