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France

Grandes écoles: The making of France’s ruling elite

© FRANCE 24

Text by François PICARD

Latest update : 2013-05-21

British journalist Peter Gumbel (pictured), author of "France's Got Talent: The woeful consequences of French elitism" speaks to FRANCE 24’s François Picard about the country’s Grandes écoles, or prestigious institutions of higher learning.

“Tell us about the history of Canada…” This curveball question thrown to a startled French student applying to France’s prestigious Sciences Po university is just one example of the so-called 'instruments of pedagogical torture' described in Peter Gumbel’s new book “France's Got Talent: the Woeful Consequences of French Elitism”.

Selection-by-elimination is at the heart of a French education system put in place by Napoleon in the early 19th century, and that begins as early as secondary school, in a country where 95 percent of college students go to second-tier public universities and where the dropout rate can be as high as 85 percent (for first year medical students, for example).

Such students, more often than not, begin active life on a note of failure, according to Gumbel.

Then there are the happy few, the 5 percent who attend the Grandes écoles like Sciences Po. These include the national administration school, ENA, and the Ecole Polytechnique, which together produce a mere 0.057 percent of French graduates but nonetheless make up more than 60 percent of President François Hollande’s staff.

Hollande attended not one but three Grandes écoles: Sciences-Po, ENA, and the business school HEC. His predecessor, on the other hand, got a lowly law degree from a public university, which prompted one critic, quoted in Gumbel’s book, to snipe “Sarkozy doesn’t know how to talk to the state.”

Britain has Oxford and Cambridge, the US has the Ivy League universities – but these old boy networks in no way rival the stranglehold that the Grandes écoles have on French public life.

Gumbel, a senior writer at Time magazine, offers an insider’s look at France’s elite-making machinery from his time teaching journalism at Sciences Po and a stint as its head of communications.

His francophone students proved to be as sharp as knives but he found getting them to participate in classroom discussion hard work after the trauma they’d suffered for years at the hands of dismissive profs in the French education system.

Gumbel is now making the case for “better elites”.

“You need brilliant minds to write good reports. But you also need efficient practitioners to apply those recommendations,” he said.

To think outside the box, France’s high-level civil service needs to open up. So do French boardrooms. At the moment a staggering 84 percent of the leaders of the top 40 companies in France hail from just three places – HEC, ENA, and Polytechnique.

Change, however, is afoot.

France’s elites are beginning to understand that they need to attract the best foreign minds and hone leaders able to compete in the era of globalisation. Otherwise, warns Gumbel, “even cream can go sour”.
 

Date created : 2013-05-21

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