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The Interview

Peter Gumbel, Paris Correspondent, Time Magazine

British journalist Peter Gumbel, author of "France's Got Talent: The woeful consequences of French elitism" speaks to François Picard about the French "grandes écoles", or elite institutions of higher learning. At a time when France is struggling to maintain its place in the world, Peter Gumbel believes that its pervasive culture of elitism is a handicap, not an advantage.

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“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% of college students go to second-tier public universities and where the dropout rate can reach as high as 85% (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% who attend the Grandes Ecoles like Science Po. That rarefied atmosphere includes the national administration school, ENA, and the Ecole Polytechnique, which together mete out a mere 0.057% of French graduates but nonetheless make up more than 60% of President François Hollande’s staff.

Speaking of Hollande, he attended not one but three Grandes Ecoles: 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 the 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 Ecoles 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 a heavy chore 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. As it stands now, a staggering 84% 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 globalization. Otherwise, warns Gumbel, in reference to France’s elite, “even the cream can sour.”
 

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