What is ENA?
The Ecole Nationale d’Administration, known as ENA, is a small Strasbourg-based finishing school for top civil servants that plays an outsized role in French public life.
Created in the aftermath of World War II, admission virtually guarantees an influential job in the upper reaches of the public sector and has long been viewed as the most promising route into politics.
The courtyard at the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration. Photo: AFP
Why was it created?
In 1945 France needed to rebuild its civil service, parts of which had collaborated with France’s Nazi occupiers during the conflict.
ENA initially succeeded in opening up the vast public administration to people drawn from different backgrounds, rather than the old aristocracy which had traditionally dominated the French state.
What’s the controversy about?
In recent decades, studies have shown its intake narrowing increasingly to the children of wealthy families, often those with past links to the school, despite an entrance exam which is open to everyone and supposedly meritocratic.
So who goes there?
Presidents of the Republic, for one.
Macron is the fourth of the six last presidents to have passed through the halls of ENA – his predecessors Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac and François Hollande also attended – and a third of all presidents since 1945 have been graduates.
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Known as Enarques in France, ENA graduates form a network of influence that stretches across the top echelons of politics and business, making it a target for critics of the French establishment for decades.
But why is Macron so keen to scrap it?
Macron, who attended from 2002-2004, was in a year group that loudly criticised the management of the school. At the end of their two years of study and work experience, the graduates wrote a letter denouncing the teaching methods and intake.
But as a presidential candidate, Macron frequently defended his alma mater, saying he had won a place there through hard work, not connections, given that his parents were doctors in provincial France.
But in 2019, following ‘yellow vest’ anti-government protests which highlighted inequality in France, Macron announced his plans to scrap the institution.
He has criticised the school for taking in fewer students from a working-class background than at the end of the last century.
In February Macron said the “social elevator” in France – the process by which people from poorer backgrounds rise to prominent positions – “works less well than 50 years ago”.
He is expected to announce a new school with a new name that will be responsible for training students for senior public sector roles, with an emphasis on opening up pathways for people from poorer or ethnic minority backgrounds.
How has the school reacted?
Patrick Gerard, the school’s director, has earlier acknowledged that only 19 percent of current students had a parent from a blue-collar background.
ENA “must transform and adapt,” he told French newspaper L’Express on Thursday, but added: “Our school cannot be blamed for all evils!”
Daniel Keller, who heads an association of former students, told France Info
that the “elitism” schools like ENA represent “is an essential element of republican meritocracy, so we cannot just throw this elitism away.”
He added: “Would we see the United Kingdom wiping out Oxford with a pen stroke? Would we see the United States abolishing Harvard?”
Some have accused of Macron demagoguery, saying that closing ENA will do nothing to resolve the underlying problems of inequality in French society.
Former president François Hollande previously recognised the need for reform but warned against the school’s closure: “I went to this school, I do not repent. I do not scourge myself by saying ‘it’s terrible, I went to this school’.”
David Guilbaud, a French administrator who has written a book about ENA, previously said closing the school was “a very good bit of PR but one that does not resolve the problem of how to train the top civil service.”
Is it really worth scrapping?
ENA’s success in producing highly-qualified public administrators, most of whom go on to hold senior jobs in ministries or public bodies, has spawned copycat institutions in other countries, including in Russia.
However the school’s diversity problems are glaring, as shown in a 2020 government-ordered report, which recommended its scrapping.
The report showed
that 70 percent of the students were children of a parent working in management. Back in 1950, the number was 45 percent.
Men were over-represented alongside graduates of Parisian schools, the report stated. Upper class applicants had a 1/10 chance in entering the school, whereas the probability was 1/18 for working class applicants.
ENA suffered from “an over-representation of the upper classes, a profoundly unbalanced gender distribution, and a Parisian virtual monopoly,” the report concluded.