France's elitist education system is not preparing future politicians for the complexities of governance. But some grandes écoles graduates are re-educating their peersby Tim King / August 27, 2006 / Leave a comment
The higher education system in France can be seen as a process of distillation—a series of competitive national exams leading to ever more exclusive schools. At the apex is the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA)—a select handful of people who will govern and administer the country. Increasingly, however, many feel these exam-freaks are incapable of solving France’s major problems: principally unemployment and poverty. Simmering discontent at the lack of democratic dialogue drives a popular desire “to do politics differently,” according to Pierre Rosanvallon, president of the think tank La République des Idées. In May, 8,000 people gathered in Grenoble for a three-day conference co-organised by La République des Idées, “to create a democracy of active citizens, with interaction between civil and political society.”
But more surprisingly, criticism of this system of choosing and educating the nation’s rulers also comes from within the elite itself. Another organiser of the Grenoble conference, Martin Hirsch, epitomises a new and unconventional breed of énarque. Going through ENA catapulted him into the Conseil d’Etat, and “there I demythologised power,” he told Le Monde. “Since I was in it, I didn’t need to fantasise about it.” Realising political rhetoric was failing to help the growing number of dispossessed, he now runs Emmaüs France, a nationwide network giving shelter and a means of livelihood to the homeless—while his former fellow students advise government or run major companies.
Some other graduates from the grandes écoles, similarly disillusioned by their experiences close to power, are innovating at a deeper level. Rediscovering democracy as an 18th-century ideal, not a 21st-century slogan, they formed Futurbulences to find new ideas that might unblock the apparently intractable mess of current French politics. “Mostly in our mid-thirties, we’re inheriting a situation that is not brilliant,” Elisabeth Lulin, a founder member of Futurbulences explained. “The older generation are bequeathing us huge debts, while behind us, people in their twenties are lost, with no work and no future. We’ve woken up to the fact it’s down to us to do something.”
Lulin went to a prestigious école normale supérieure, then Sciences Po before going to ENA, graduating in the top handful and becoming adviser to the prime minister. She quickly became convinced that the approach of politicians was wrong: “Politicians construct their programmes around existing problems, that is looking backwards, and to solve them they promise to restore something which existed before, French sovereignty or the…