Has Emmanuel Macron gone to war with the elite?

Rather than a socially minded policy to scrap France’s entrenched class hierarchies, Macron’s plan to close a French finishing school will replace one elite with another.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

He ran on a platform to replace France’s old political establishment. His party, En Marche, introduced a new generation of MPs to the French parliament. Now he is mounting an attack on the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), a postgraduate school that has long been a training ground for the establishment in waiting. Is Emmanuel Macron at war with the elite?

France’s ENA school is often blamed for embodying all that is wrong with the old political establishment. The Strasbourg finishing academy was founded in 1945 by former French president Charles de Gaulle to train post-war French civil servants and democratise access to high office. Despite its lofty ambitions, the school has remained extremely selective. 

Parents of ENA students are often senior civil servants and CEOs. Few students hail from working-class backgrounds and less than a third of graduates are female. Entrance exams are notoriously difficult; after a three-part admissions process, applicants undertake the “grand oral”, a gruelling 45-minute exam where a jury can ask any question based on the candidate’s CV.

Much like PPE graduates in British public life, ENA students pervade French politics. The school’s alumni include four former French presidents, eight prime ministers, dozens of sitting and former MP, MEPs and senators, and CEOs of private companies. Macron, too, is a former ENA pupil. So why would the former student want to close the school that incubated his career?

With Macron, the answer lies in one universal concept: reform. On 26 April, Macron said that France must abolish the ENA and replace it with something “better”. He believes the school is no longer reflective of French society, and plans to change its entry criteria to admit exclusively on merit, and reform the school’s curriculum, which he accuses of encouraging a “uniformity of thought” among pupils. 

But some French politicians worry that Macron’s plans are an effort to remould the ENA in the image of a privatised education system. Right-wing MP Julien Aubert accused Macron of “demagoguery” and said closing the ENA could obscure a darker project – leaving the workings of the state to private companies. (Aubert offered his own eccentric alternative to Macron’s plans for reforming entrance – placing civil servants on admission juries to quiz the candidates).

While Macron’s intentions are still unclear, his economy minister Bruno Le Maire has been campaigning for ENA’s closure since 2016. Le Maire’s justification for abolishing the school is that France is entering a new era of “entrepreneurs, of creativity and of innovation” – a description that rings of corporate-speak.  

Indeed, Macron has often sought to embolden the private sector through policies that favour increased competition and a larger role for private companies in public life. The ENA declaration spearheads a more ambitious package of reforms that target the French public sector and civil service. Macron has cited the need to modernise as the logic underpinning these reforms. Yet, as with his liberalisation of French railway operator SNCF, “modernisation” has often stood for market competition.

In theory, the announcement of ENA’s closure is a populist vote-winner. In practice, it conveniently detracts from a broader set of reforms that will prove less palatable to the French electorate, including plans to axe 120,000 civil service jobs before the end of his term.

Macron has tasked the lawyer Frédéric Thiriez with producing a detailed ENA reform project in six months. Reactions to the school’s redesign have been varied. Former ENA director Nathalie Loiseau said she welcomed the redesign, and that the institution needs “stirring up”.

But rather than a socially minded policy to scrap France’s entrenched class hierarchies, Macron’s real plan is more likely about empowering a new elite at the expense of the old. This new elite trades public service jobs for private companies, launches startup movements that disrupt old dogmas, and gets elected president aged only 39. The ENA is old school. This is the new world – Macron’s world.

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.