Macron Takes on the Harvard of France

(Bloomberg) -- French President Emmanuel Macron so wants to quell the “Yellow Vest” protests and boost his popularity that he’s ready to sacrifice his own alma mater.

The National School of Administration, an elite postgraduate institution known by its French initials of ENA, has trained thousands of top French government and business leaders. It’s also a longtime target of critics on the right and left who call it a factory for brainy bureaucrats out of touch with the real world—a jab often aimed at Macron himself.

Now, Macron wants to close or radically revamp the school. The measure is among several the president had intended to announce Monday night in a speech previously recorded but delayed when Notre-Dame Cathedral caught on fire. “If we want to build a society of equal opportunity and national excellence, we must reset the rules for recruitment, careers and access to the upper echelons of the civil service,” he said. Copies of the recording were leaked to French news media outlets; Macron is expected to announce his proposals next week.

ENA has played an outsize role in France since it was founded in 1945—ironically, in what was seen as an effort to widen entry to high-level jobs beyond the rich and well-connected. The school’s roughly 6,500 graduates, known as enarques, have included four of France’s past six presidents and a horde of cabinet ministers and legislators. Enarques in the current government also include Prime Minister Edouard Philippe, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and Defense Minister Florence Parly. Six of Macron’s top advisers, including his chief of staff and secretary-general, are graduates as well.

Macron Takes on the Harvard of France

The school, which has campuses in Paris and in Strasbourg, is sometimes compared to such elite U.S. and British universities as Harvard and Oxford, but in some ways it’s strikingly different. Applicants take a series of grueling entrance exams, with no provisions for affirmative action or preference for children of alumni. Christine Lagarde, a former French finance minister who now heads the International Monetary Fund, flunked the exam, as did her IMF predecessor, Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

Tuition is free, and about one in four students qualify for financial aid to pay room and board. Graduates are guaranteed a job in the civil service but must repay a pro-rated share of back tuition if they work for the government fewer than 10 years. 

Enarques often shuttle between government and the corporate world. The 41-year-old Macron, who graduated in 2004, was an investment banker between stints in government—and thus had to repay a reported 50,000 euros ($56,000) in tuition. Stephane Richard, the current chairman and chief executive of telecom giant Orange SA, and bank Societe Génerale SA chief Frederic Oudea  are ENA alumni, as is the chairman of bank BNP Paribas SA, Jean Lemierre.

Discontent over ENA has simmered for years, with even some graduates saying it has created a network of powerful technocrats who hobnob with each other and lack understanding of real-world problems. What’s more, enarques don’t always make good business managers—notably Jean-Marie Messier, whose frenetic dealmaking as CEO of Vivendi SA nearly killed that company in the early 2000s.

Finance Minister Le Maire called for closing the school during his unsuccessful presidential primary bid in 2016. ENA “has trained highly qualified civil servants,” he said at the time. “But we are entering a new world of entrepreneurs, creativity, and innovation.”

A mid-April poll by survey firm Ifop for the newspaper Journal du Dimanche found that 39 percent of voting-age French wanted to close the school, while 54 percent didn’t. The strongest support for closure, 49 percent, came from backers of far-right politician Marine Le Pen.

“Is getting rid of ENA really going to make a difference in our purchasing power?” Ingrid Levavasseur, a founder of the Yellow Vests movement, which has spearheaded protests across France since November, asked in an interview Wednesday on BFM Television. Complaints about taxes, low wages, and inadequate public services have dominated the protests.

READ How Yellow Vests Remain Thorn in Macron Presidency: QuickTake

ENA’s leaders in recent years have implemented reforms to address some of its weaknesses, for example by requiring students to complete internships to hone their management skills. The school also has expanded its international recruitment, with about one-third of students now coming from outside France.

“I tried to budge ENA, but was faced with certain obstacles,” Nathalie Loiseau, Macron’s former European Affairs minister who headed the institution from 2012 to 2017, said on Radio Classique Thursday.  “I did what I could. Let's see what the president does.”

The idea of closure may be mostly a gesture. The president mostly wants to diversify the upper ranks of the civil service, according to two people familiar with his plans. The institution is unlikely to be abolished but could be renamed and reorganized, according to these people, who said details haven’t been decided yet.

Laurent Bigorgne, head of the the public-policy Institut Montaigne in Paris, said that if Macron wants to diversify the upper ranks of the civil service he can make it easier for the government to recruit from elsewhere for plum jobs traditionally reserved for ENA graduates. The school, he said, has provided excellent training to civil servants over the years.

“Getting rid of ENA makes no sense,” he said.

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