The Old Ecole Tie

Elites in French Society: The Politics of Survival

by Ezra N. Suleiman
Princeton University Press, 299 pp., $9.75 (paper)

Class and Status in France: Economic Change and Social Immobility, 1945-1975

by Jane Marceau
Oxford University Press, 217 pp., $15.95

The young Frenchman near the top of his class at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration can expect to enter the Inspection des Finances, most prestigious of the grands corps de l’état. As a young inspecteur, he will be assigned to a series of jobs analyzing and administering economic and financial policy in government departments and ministries, ranging from the national bank to the national defense. He can look forward to becoming, perhaps in very short order, a close adviser to a cabinet minister or even to the prime minister. (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing is a graduate of the ENA; so was his first prime minister and current rival Jacques Chirac.)

The brilliant young graduate may take on, still at an early age, the presidency or director-generalship of a major private corporation. The énarque who finishes at the bottom of his class can still be confident that his corps will never let him down; the old-boy network (old girls are virtually nonexistent) will look after him until the grave. He is assured of life membership in the French governing elite.

In his book Ezra N. Suleiman explains how this elite is selected, trained, and organized; what it thinks of itself and how it justifies its authority. He explores the institutional bases of its dominance and attempts to account for its endurance in the face of the democratization of French society. His analysis of “the politics of survival” makes an important contribution to an understanding of an elite unique in the West. For the French elite is a creation of the state, a peculiarity from which it derives both strength and longevity.

A handful of grandes écoles act as gateways to the elite, each year admitting a few hundred of the thousands who submit to the rigorous competitive examinations. Some of these schools were established under the Old Regime, some under the Revolution, some much later. Their utilitarian function and ethos they owe to Napoleon, who relied on them to furnish the state with loyal and able servants, well trained in practical specialties. In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, reformers gathered the isolated and decaying faculties of law, medicine, and letters into something resembling universities, but the grandes écoles kept their monopoly on selecting and certifying the governing elite.

This dualism in French higher education persists. The grandes écoles remain small, selective, and few in number. The Ecole Polytechnique admits 300 students annually, no more than it did a century ago; the Ecole Nationale d’Administration admits fewer than 100. Each has a specific function; each claims to furnish its students with skills vital to the national welfare. The universities admit anyone who has managed to acquire a lycée diploma, an accomplishment said to be less difficult now than formerly. Responding to the growth of the French population, they have swollen to gargantuan proportions. Pursuing abstract research, disseminating culture générale, and awarding degrees that merely prepare graduates to fight among themselves for a diminishing supply of jobs, the universities …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.