Emmanuel Macron’s bonfire of the elites

The French president is threatening to abolish the École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA), the breeding ground of the ruling elite. 

In the past few weeks, the fire at Notre Dame cathedral has dominated the French news agenda. In some ways this has served President Emmanuel Macron quite well. For one thing, it has temporarily diverted public attention from the slow-burning anger in France, which has led to the gilet jaune movement and whichremains a genuine threat to Macron’s presidency.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, the fire and the conspiracy theories and controversies that followed in its wake have turned the gaze away from the reforms promised by Macron after the so-called Great Debate. This was a series of public meetings and discussions held across France over recent months, attended by politicians who were meant to listen to the people and so defuse their anger.

This is Macron’s version of populist politics. In his own speeches, he has been notably contrite and vowed that he “can do better”. “I have heard the anger,” he said. “I have felt it in my flesh.” The problem is that none of this has sounded in the least convincing – the old Macron arrogance is very thinly disguised: in fact, it’s all about him.

At first sight, however, the changes seem reasonable enough, although they do signal a retreat from his fiscal policy. During a press conference on 25 April, Macron promised more rural schools and hospitals, and to lower taxes and raise pensions. None of these reforms would substantially close the gap between sleek, successful metropolitan France and the excluded gilets jaunes and their supporters. But they are at least a step in right direction. 

But then, during same the press conference, Macron made his most dramatic and astonishing promise: to shut down the École Nationale d’Administration (ÉNA), or the National School of Administration. This is the graduate school that, since being founded by Charles de Gaulle in 1945, has trained most of the leading civil servants and politicians in France. The ostensible reason for the closure is that the ÉNA is the breeding ground of the ruling elite and a block to social mobility – an accusation frequently made by some in the gilet jaune movement, and which appears in its slogans and graffiti. Indeed, this is a belief widely held across France.

One of the more obvious contradictions is, however, that Macron himself, who comes from a provincial background, is a graduate of the ÉNA. So much for the école as a monument to social immobility.

More hypocritically, in his autobiography of 2017, Revolution, Macron spent many pages praising the ÉNA, paying homage to the superb quality of education that it offers even the most humble French person, before declaring, “I have never supported dissolving ÉNA.”

This statement has not been forgotten by the French electorate and it makes Macron look like a slippery conman never averse to a cynical PR gimmick. Worse still, the declaration reveals the president, who prides himself on his infallibility and integrity, to be just another craven people-pleaser with no real ideology – certainly such a public U-turn undermines other promises he has made.

The reaction to Macron’s proposed abolition of ÉNA has been remarkably muted in the media as well as among voters. This is partly because they’ve heard it all before. In 2007 and 2016 respectively, François Bayrou and Bruno Le Maire, both politicians of the centre right, called for the suppression of the ÉNA, claiming that it was training a government within a government, and one that usually had left-wing sympathies. As far back as 1964, the social theorist Pierre Bourdieu had pointed out the dangers of the ÉNA, not necessarily because it produced leftists but because it created a “culturally dominant élite” that is fundamentally “undemocratic”.

There is some truth to all of these views. But there is also a counter-argument, made in recent days by the writer Arthur Chevallier. In the pages of Le Point he highlights that the ÉNA was specifically founded by de Gaulle to provide a check on military leaders and self-serving politicians, all of them incompetent, who did not know how a modern democracy should work, and who were ultimately responsible for the collapse of France in 1940. It is true that since de Gaulle’s day the school has produced four French presidents (Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, François Hollande and now Macron) and numerous prime ministers. But for all the political clout and historic prestige of the ÉNA, most of its alumni go on to distinguished if dull careers in public service, creating a politically neutral class of civil servants pretty much as De Gaulle had intended.

The ÉNA is, however, an easy target for Macron precisely because the myths of its secretive political hold on power in France are so persuasive.

If there are problems with the ÉNA, however, they are more to do with accessibility and diversity rather than any invisible stranglehold on French political power structures. This is the view held by the school’s director, Patrick Gérard, who points out that only 19 per cent of the current intake are from working-class backgrounds.

The challenge, then, is to make the ÉNA reflect the social and racial diversity of modern France. But this is a big and complicated task, and needs deep change at the structural level – through curriculum alterations, new exam techniques, outreach programmes, and so on.

Few believe that Emmanuel Macron will carry out his promise to abolish his alma mater. Even fewer people believe that, if he does so, this will address the deep social issues in France – unemployment, housing, the cost of living – and so contain the simmering anger that has brought the gilets jaunes on to the streets.

This article appears in the 24 May 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit earthquake