April 13, 2021   5 mins

Emmanuel Macron has invented a new form of murder — Alma Matricide, the abolition of one’s own place of learning. The Ecole National d’Administration, ENA, the legendary finishing school of the French political elite, is to be suppressed by its most successful son.

On paper, it seems like a straightforward political win. ENA is France’s most prestigious seat of higher education; an officer-training school for senior civil servants which has produced many leading politicians and (more rarely these days) captains of industry. In terms of its preservation of the elite, the closest British comparison might be Eton and Oxford — combined.

Indeed, when General Charles de Gaulle created ENA in 1945, his primary aim was to train a new, meritocratic elite, to replace the social elite whom he believed had betrayed France in 1940. By the 1990s, however, ENA was accused of a new form of betrayal: the creation of a self-perpetuating oligarchy which prevented more practical or inventive talent from rising in the French system.

Since then, the destruction of ENA has become a theme of French politics. The school has been constantly reformed, reduced in size and moved from Paris to Strasbourg. In fact, the all-powerful ENA of legend probably ceased to exist years ago. And yet it has remained a symbol of a know-it-all, elitist French state, with President Macron as its most perfect manifestation.

Macron graduated from ENA in 2004. A dozen years later he became President of the Republic. Laurent Fabius took only 11 years from graduation to become Socialist prime minister (1984-6). Jacques Chirac was an énarque. So was ValĂ©ry Giscard d’Estaing, François Hollande and more than a third of the prime ministers of the Fifth Republic.

And yet despite its reputation, ENA is not fee-paying. In theory, it’s open to people of all backgrounds: the 80 students in each year class are paid a salary by the state. Entry is based on tough exams after two years of “prĂ©pas” (preparatory courses). Once they’re in, the 80 students are graded from 1 to 80, with those in the top 15 — the “botte” or boot — admitted directly into a kind of praetorian guard of the French civil service, les grand corps, when they graduate. They are guaranteed a senior job and salary for life. (For what it’s worth, Macron came 5th in his year.)

Although theoretically a place of learning, ENA is actually a place of permanent examination — of stress-testing — rather than education. An ENA graduate once told me: “You learn nothing… It’s a system for grading you, for deciding how well you will cope with the kinds of problems that might be thrown at you.” Another well-known product of ENA in the late 1980s told me: “It was a machine for discovering how flexible your spine was. If it wasn’t flexible, you didn’t do well in the final classification.”

The Covid crisis offers evidence both for and against the ENA effect. France has got many things wrong during the last year, partly because its administrative culture is so ponderous and averse to risk. And yet, on the other hand, its state-funded economic support programme has been exemplary and much copied (including by Britain). That was shaped by Macron (ENA 2002-4), his then Prime Minister Edouard Philippe (ENA 1995-7) and most of all by his finance minister, Bruno Le Maire (ENA 1996-8).

Even so, ENA remains shorthand for the gulf between a struggling rural and inner suburban France and the administrative, political classes who are viewed as too abstract and too arrogant to grasp the harsh realities of daily life. Macron’s decision to suppress ENA from June and replace it with another smaller college, the Institut du service public or ISP, therefore made political sense.

Stymied by the pandemic, it is the only high-profile reform he can realistically offer before the presidential election next spring. Not that it hasn’t been a long time coming; Macron promised the death of ENA during the Gilets Jaunes’s rural and suburban revolt against the elite in 2018-9. But doing it now fits in with Macron’s wider campaign to seem less arrogant and aloof, along with his apology for failing to grasp sooner the need for a rapid roll-out of Covid vaccines. Destroying ENA in its present form also fits the original Macroniste offer and vision from 2017 of making France a land of opportunity — a can-do, start-up country where top jobs in government are open to clever young people from forgotten rural France and the struggling, multi-racial banlieues.

Though hardly reported, Macron has made other advances in that direction in recent months. Two policies have been introduced to fight social and racial discrimination and allow capable young people from rural or suburban backgrounds to climb the ladder more rapidly in state jobs. In other words, the suppression of ENA will be deployed in Macron’s election campaign next spring as a way of saying: “I have started to open up and change France for the better. The pandemic got in the way — so give me more time to complete the job.”

In truth, however, abolishing ENA is more like a burial than a murder. The school has ceased in recent years to be the ultimate pinnacle of ambition for hyper-clever, young 20-somethings in France. “ENA was once the place you had to go to prove yourself and to be sure of success. No more,” one 2016 graduate told me. “Young people now strive to go to the HEC (the top French business school) or Polytechnique (the elite engineering college). They used to ‘do ENA’ afterwards. Now they want to go to McKinsey or to Silicon Valley and then come back to France to start their own business.”

Another recent student said that he had learned since graduating that ENA no longer has the same mystique within the French political and administrative system. Ministries, he said, were turning to the big consultancy firms, such as McKinsey, to make the strategic decisions that énarques once made. “Macron’s decision fits this pattern, I fear. It’s part of a trend that’s been going on for several years to downgrade the importance of the senior French administration, to move away from a specifically French approach to French problems and become more international. In the long run, I think that’s something France will regret.”

Is it still the case that, as I was told, you “learn nothing at ENA”?

“That’s certainly true of the 18 months you spend within the walls of ENA itself in Strasbourg, yes,” said my first source. “In the preparatory courses, you learn things. In the two six-month placements in France and abroad, you learn a great deal. But once you’re in Strasbourg, you are incessantly tested and, I would say, taught only that to succeed you must conform.”

The former student, who asked not to be named, was an atypical énarque, the only one in his year who came from a working-class family. “ENA was my dream from the age of 16,” he said. “It was the way I thought I could succeed in life. When I got there, I detested the place. Why? Because the whole ENA approach is detestable.”

After working for several years in government, he left to start his own business. My other informant still works in government but has started to build a political career for himself in the provinces because, he says, “being an énarque no longer helps you so much as all that”.

And so Macron’s decision is not the revolution that he claims — it is more like a recognition of changes that are already happening. Its replacement’s college will be housed in the same building and will have many of the same teachers. Perhaps the most obvious difference is that there will be only 40 students, not 80; hardly a sign that it will be more open.

How they will be selected is still unclear, possibly by high achievement in relation to their social background, rather than just by competitive exam. This approach has already been tried with some success at “Science-Po”, France’s “political university” which sends many of its graduates to ENA. The numbered classification will remain but the top 15 graduates will no longer enter the praetorian ranks of the state service directly. They will have to prove themselves in more lowly work for five years first.

But will replacing the ENA alone help France to become the land of opportunity that Macron promises? Hardly. France has a baffling system of “first and second divisions” in higher education which will remain largely intact. State university courses, medicine and law apart, are inexpensive, easy to reach but extremely variable in quality. And clever students from well-off families aspire instead to go to a separate archipelago of state-run Grandes Ecoles, like Polytechnique, or to private, fee-paying business schools, like HEC. To reach them, two years of preparatory classes are needed.

Replacing ENA might remove the topmost pinnacle of the mountain. But for the great majority of French youngsters, the slopes to success will remain as forbiddingly steep as ever.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.