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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 cannot rival the grandes écoles in claims to usefulness. They function as sidetracks, the grandes écoles as the main line.

For the grandes écoles supply new members to the grands corps de l’état—corporations organized to perform certain functions on behalf of the state. The Corps des Ponts et Chaussées—in charge not only of bridges and roads but of public works and planning generally—the Cour des Comptes, the Inspection des Finances are the kind of institutions to which Tocqueville pointed as evidence of the continuities between modern France and the Old Regime. Vestiges of a society of orders, they flourish in a society of classes. Composed of members sharing similar educational backgrounds, similar career patterns, similar views of French society at large, they are as much clubs as institutions of the state.

Just as certain American prep schools once sent most of their graduates to certain universities, certain grandes écoles maintain close links with certain grands corps. The Ecole Polytechnique, for instance, sends the brightest polytechniciens to the Corps des Mines or the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées. Joining the Inspection des Finances, the Cour des Comptes or the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées requires graduating in the top fifth of one’s class at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration. If all the grandes écoles are excellent, some are thought to be more excellent than others. The Ecole Normale Supérieure, historically the chosen school of brilliant poets, philosophers, and politicians, has in recent years lost ground in the hierarchy to the Ecole Polytechnique and ENA. And if all grands corps are prestigious, they do not all command equal prestige. The Inspection des Finances promises—and usually delivers—the most favored and spectacular careers. Maurice Lauré, Jacques Chaine, and Pierre Ledoux, presidents respectively of the Société Générale, the Credit Lyonnais, and the Banque Nationale de Paris, three of the largest banks in France, are all inspecteurs des finances, as are a good share of their younger colleagues. Giscard d’Estaing is himself an inspecteur.

Grandes écoles and grands corps have become far more than institutions for selecting, training, and organizing the servants of the state. They have enlarged the role that Napoleon gave them, and to this imperial disregard of an emperor’s designs they owe their immense importance in French society today. Pantouflage—leaving state service for a lucrative private job—a practice once the exception, has nearly become the rule. The grandes écoles and grands corps have become platforms from which to make le grand saut from public administration to key positions elsewhere in the society. The Inspection des Finances, for instance, now functions as an express elevator, shooting inspecteurs to the top levels of decision making in a broad range of public and private organizations.

Mr. Suleiman believes an identifiable and self-conscious elite has been formed by the graduates of the top schools. He has interviewed them, read their works, tried to identify their power and their viewpoints. He finds that the elite justifies its dominant position in society in ways that are suitable to the occasion yet contradictory. The members of the elite defend the grandes écoles as institutions essential to the training of specialists. Such a defense squares with the popular image of the official as technocrat, an expert well versed in the use of the computer and in the modern techniques of rational problem solving. But in justifying its ubiquity, its quasi monopoly of positions of command, the elite shifts ground entirely, claiming as its only skills those of the generalist, the man who is ready for anything by virtue of his specialization in nothing. “My great advantage as head of this bank,” one member of the elite told Suleiman, “is that I never had a modest job in a bank, so I knew nothing about banking before coming to this post.”

The French elite is nothing if not fast on its feet. Its agility in justifying its authority is exceeded only by its skill in adapting to changing political, social, and economic circumstances. Suleiman appears in this book as a Darwinian social scientist, finding in adaptation the key to the elite’s survival. The capacity for adaptation has not always had happy results. Under the Vichy regime, members of the grands corps de l’état took charge of the ministries they had staffed before the defeat of 1940. “At its height,” Robert Paxton has written, “Vichy was more the creation of experts and professionals than of any other social group, and to judge Vichy is to judge the French elite.”1

Sometimes the elite’s capacity for adaptation is merely startling. The Ecole des Mines, for instance, is probably the most successful graduate school of business in France today—not quite the role one would expect of an institution founded to train mining engineers. But the demand for mining engineers has dwindled as the demand for managers has soared, and the Ecole des Mines has reformed its curriculum accordingly. The Corps des Ponts et Chaussées, the highway department of the Old Regime, has managed to make itself the agency responsible for urban planning in all of France. The Inspection des Finances has had to make the fewest adjustments of any grands corps. Entrenched in key positions in politics and the economy, especially in credit and banking institutions, where they enjoy a near monopoly of decision making jobs, the inspecteurs have in some measure been able to shape events instead of reacting to them.

Managing and directing the rapid industrialization to which the state has been wholeheartedly committed for the past quarter century has reinforced the elite’s already pronounced belief in its indispensability. Enarques and other members of the elite were active in both the abortive left-wing version of this effort—Pierre Mendès-France’s six months as prime minister in 1954—and in the sustained right-wing version of Charles de Gaulle and his successors. They rode two decades of nearly uninterrupted economic expansion into a position of increased influence in every sector of public and private enterprise.

The economic transformation that John Ardagh once described as “The New French Revolution”—a title meant to convey a sense of changes as sweeping as those set in motion in 1789—made historians and social scientists remember their theories of French economic development. They had spent years trying to explain France’s lack of development, its slow pace of change, its sluggish response to the impulses of industrialism. In the manner of physicians huddled at a sick man’s bedside, they diagnosed French economic backwardness. The Harvard historian David Landes’s diagnosis laid the troubles to the precapitalist mentality of French businessmen, whose fear of putting at risk their family-dominated firms stifled the entrepreneurial spirit.2 Another diagnosis, promoted by Herbert Lüthy, subscribed to the neo-Weberian notion that Catholic France had inhibitions against the profit motive. Still a third followed Tocqueville, and blamed French economic stagnation on the centralizing state, whose parasitic appetite consumed the energies required for private endeavor.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, in the midst of this discussion, the patient sprang from its bed and began taking sustained and vigorous exercise. This caused some economic historians to reject the need for an etiology of the French economic malady and to suggest that France’s pattern of development had simply differed from those of the other major industrialized countries. Social scientists switched their attention from explaining why the French economy had been so backward to why it had suddenly become so advanced.

The drive for industrialization has enormously increased the national wealth. But as Jane Marceau shows in Class and Status in France, deep inequalities persist. Standards of living have gone up; the shape of the social structure has stayed substantially the same. The gap in income between the bottom 10 percent and the top 10 percent is greater than in England, Germany, Holland, and the US. In 1975 the members of the working class in France, compared to other classes, not only earned the least but had the least income security; were most vulnerable to unemployment; owned the least capital; took the fewest vacations; lived the shortest lives; were most prone to illness and accident; lived in the poorest housing; bought the fewest consumer goods; participated least in collective services such as state medical care; contributed most to transfer payments such as oldage pensions. A son of the middle classes had five times fewer chances of joining the elite than had a son of the elite of inheriting his father’s membership.

What might be called the escalator effect has been at work: the moving staircase of industrial growth carried French society upward in material well-being, but few of its members changed social positions. This means that the social composition of the elite has remained unchanged. For most of this century, for instance, half the inspecteurs des finances have been Parisians, of whom two-thirds grew up in the well-to-do quarters of the city. Suleiman belongs among those social scientists who in recent years have come to doubt whether origins have much effect on an elite’s behavior once in office. An inspecteur des finances of working-class origins has more in common with an inspecteur of bourgeois parentage than he has with a member of the working class. The position a member of the elite occupies is likely to influence his behavior far more than his social origins do. But it remains true that most of the elite comes from the upper part of the upper middle class, or from the upper class itself.

Not so very long ago the servants of the state administered economic policies designed to protect the little man—the peasants, shopkeepers, and artisans who were the backbone of the Third Republic. Toward businessmen they maintained an attitude of suspicion and disdain; they exalted the virtues of solidarity and stability over competition and profit; they insisted the state had interests distinct from those of private enterprise. Now those trained in the state’s service shuttle back and forth between ministerial cabinets and corporate boardrooms. The large industrial enterprises, the nationalized industries, and the public administration are all the preserve of the grands corps.

For instance, members of the corps occupy strategic positions in what has become the most modern nuclear industry in the West. To competitors in other countries, this relatively small group of familiars seems able to make and execute decisions on the building of breeder reactors or nuclear power plants with enviable speed. Determined to free France of its dependence on imported energy, which now must supply 75 percent of its needs, they have committed the nation to a nuclear future. Three Mile Island has done nothing to diminish their confidence in the wisdom of this course, or to raise challenges to their authority. In the nuclear industry, as elsewhere in the economy, so cozy has the relationship between the public and private sectors grown that it is hard to tell where big business leaves off and the big state begins.

The renaissance of the French left in the early 1970s generated demands for sweeping alterations in the relationship between business and the state. From remnants of the moribund SFIO (Section Française de l’Internationale Ouvrière) and youthful new recruits, François Mitterrand fashioned a dynamic new Socialist Party, some of whose most prominent and energetic leaders—Michel Rocard and Pierre Joxe, for example—are members of the grand corps. In 1972 the French Communists, evidently trying to show themselves at some distance from Moscow, announced they had abandoned the doctrine of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The same year, Communists and Socialists put aside their long history of mutual antagonism and endorsed a “common program.”

As redolent of the past as an old steamer trunk, the program may have been “more an albatross than an attraction.”3 Nevertheless, the two parties staggered under its weight from one electoral triumph to another. In the fall of 1977 the Communists suddenly announced they no longer cared to update the common program—a signal, perhaps, of their alarm at the Socialists’ electoral gains. The Communists, it now seems clear, were determined to sink the coalition, and many of the Socialists who formerly argued that they had “evolved” have bitterly turned against them. Still, the opponents of the coalition took the possibility of its winning the parliamentary elections of March 1978 seriously enough to ship a lot of money out of the country. Only when the Gaullists and their unfriendly allies, the Giscardiens, kept their majority in the National Assembly did the assets come flowing back.

No doubt many members of the grands corps welcomed Mitterrand’s defeat. Yet none was heard to have cleaned out his desk against the possibility of a left-wing victory. The elite believes it has less to fear from such a victory than those who identify them simply as allies of the great French corporations would have it. Guarantors of order and stability, sources of the expertise essential to an advanced industrial society, its members do not think any government—left or right—can get along without them. Their self-confidence is understandable. The left’s proposals for reforming grandes écoles and grands corps have been timid indeed. On the grandes écoles, the common program contained only a sentence expressing the hope of seeing them better integrated into higher education.

The advocates of an egalitarian society have clung to the strategy of “democratization” that since the nineteenth century has been the left’s main proposal for educational reform. In France democratizing institutions capable of conferring on their members status, wealth, and power means admitting to them more of the sons and daughters of the lower classes. How the working class—or society at large—would benefit from the admission to the Ecole Polytechnique of a few more workers’ children is never made clear. Suleiman’s book argues that the Ecole Polytechnique would remain the same, and so would the structure of the elite to which it is the gateway. Democratization of the kind the left proposes would in his view merely enhance the elite’s legitimacy.

Suleiman closes his excellent book with his own admittedly limited suggestions for reform. He proposes restricting the leaves of absence permitted members of the grands corps. Depriving them of the freedom to take their extended sabbaticals would drastically alter patterns of recruitment to the top posts in the public and private bureaucracies. Confining inspecteurs des finances to the Inspection des Finances would open positions the inspecteurs now monopolize to candidates of other backgrounds.

The boom years that enabled the grands corps to find their way into every nook and cranny in society came to an end earlier in this decade. Stagflation ate away at prosperity. In 1975 industrial production fell for the first time since 1945. In 1978 unemployment reached 6 percent—for France an alarmingly high figure. Between the present and a return to something resembling the good old days of rapid growth stand the realities of expensive energy, scarce raw materials, and increased international competition. Such changes in the conditions of economic life may force corresponding changes in the structure of the French economy.

The governing elite no doubt believes it is up to presiding over whatever transformations may be required. The depth and obduracy of the crisis have done nothing to shake its self-confidence or to call into question its positions of power and influence. But should they ever be toppled from the perches to which they have climbed, the members of the elite have the satisfaction of knowing they will land on their feet. “When the day of reckoning comes,” one of them told Suleiman, “the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées will always be able to say that we are needed just to build roads.”

  1. 1

    Vichy France: Old Guard and New Order, 1940-1944 (Knopf, 1972), pp. 266-267.

  2. 2

    French Business and the Businessman: A Social and Cultural Analysis,” in Modern France: Problems of the Third and Fourth Republics, edited by Edward Meade Earle (Princeton University Press, 1951).

  3. 3

    Suzanne Berger, “Politics and Antipolitics in Western Europe in the Seventies,” Daedalus, CVIII (Winter 1979), p. 45.

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