Macron Rebrands France’s Top School in Bid for Blue Collar Votes

French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to overhaul the way the country trains its senior state officials in an attempt to appease voters yearning for more equality.

“Our public service has two diseases: determinism and corporatism,” Macron told high ranking civil servants on Thursday, according to a transcript of his speech. “We built bulwarks of excellence that attracted those with high potential” but were sometimes “unfair.”

Among the changes, the one most likely to grab all the attention is make-over of Macron’s alma mater, the prestigious postgraduate Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA.

Macron Rebrands France’s Top School in Bid for Blue Collar Votes

ENA will no longer exist in name from 2022. Instead it will be merged, along with about one dozen other administrative schools, into a single organization called the Institute of Public Service. It will draw on a more diverse poll of candidates and teach a wider curriculum, Macron said. Crucially, graduates won’t secure a job for life in Paris’s highest circles right away, according to an official in the president’s office.

With a presidential election just a year away, Macron has been criticized by left-wing opponents for focusing too much on right-wing issues related to security and religion. The French leader, a former investment banker from an upper-class family of doctors, is also trying to shake off an image of arrogance and elitism.

Created by General de Gaulle’s government to form managers able to help re-build the country after WWII, ENA has become the symbol of the kind of privilege Macron is seen to represent. He promised to close it during the Yellow Vest protests -- which were sparked by a tax on fuel at the end of 2018 and morphed into a nationwide movement calling for greater equality and the return of a wealth tax that he scrapped early in his mandate.

While public education is mostly free in France, the state spends much more on students at elite schools such as ENA, who tend to come from an affluent background, than on those enrolled in ordinary universities or undertaking professional training.

ENA graduates have gone on to secure permanent contracts for top jobs in public administration, for example at a ministry or with the audit court, with posts awarded based on students’ final class rankings. The school has also opened doors to senior positions in business, with many CEOs and executives in private companies having graduated from it.

Macron has criticized ENA for hindering social mobility, and in blaming missteps in his government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis, including delays in the vaccination campaign, on red tape and French bureaucracy, he has effectively also questioned the school’s training methods.

Yet, the changes announced on Thursday are mostly symbolic, with Macron himself saying he doesn’t want to “heap opprobrium” on the system that brought about ENA and its graduates.

And they’re unlikely to significantly reduce deep-rooted inequalities. Those begin far earlier at the kindergarten level where poorer children already lag behind their more affluent peers who attend better schools, with more senior teachers, in their neighborhoods.

It also remains to be seen whether this new school can fulfill the goals Macron outlined. ENA itself struggled to change over the years despite previous reform pledges.

The institute that will replace ENA will be based in the same building, in the northeastern city of Strasbourg, according to Macron’s office.

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