Masters of le Grand Oral

For years, France’s political institutions, civil service and leading businesses have been run by specially trained, super-intelligent Enarques. Who are they? What do they do? And why are so many facing criminal charges?

More than in any other western country, political, economic and administrative power in France is in the hands of a tiny elite – the énarques.

All are graduates of Paris's celebrated Ecole Nationale D'Administration (ENA, National School of Administration) and its sister institutions, the Ecole Polytechnique or the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris (the Paris Institute of Political Sciences) still better known as “Sciences-Po”.

The roll call of modern French government reads like a graduation class from ENA: six of the past nine prime ministers; usually the bulk of the cabinet, two of the past three presidents, including the current incumbent, Jacques Chirac; and just over half of the top 17 ministers in the last government (the present-day Minister of the Interior, Dominique de Villepin is an énarque).

The sheer exclusivity of their education keeps the énarques’ old-boy network going. Each year ENA produces a mere hundred or so graduates (of whom a quarter to a third are women). There are only 5,000 living énarques, against some 100,000 current graduates of Oxbridge and over half a million more Ivy Leaguers.

Candidates, selected from within the civil service or snaffled from the country's most academic universities, spend up to two years preparing for the gruelling ENA entrance examinations. Spaced out over three months, these culminate in le Grand oral – a 45-minute interview where questions on any imaginable subject are fired at the candidate. The secret to success here is apparently the ability to argue a point from both sides.

Only 120 are granted a place but once accepted they receive around €1,500 ($1,850) a month from the state to cover living expenses. The curriculum is narrow, mostly dealing with case studies in international relations and administrative law. Not much else is taught. A recent ENA graduate currently working in the Ministry of Finance and interviewed in 2004 by the Economist magazine says that he didn’t learn much academically at the school. "There were some great extracurricular activities – I took Arabic lessons and sport – but as for the actual academic subjects, it was mainly rehashing what I already knew from my political science studies."

The prize makes it all worthwhile. All graduates are automatically given five years employment in the French civil service with the ability to pick and choose from top government postings available. One graduate summed this up: "There is a lot of pressure to succeed, because the results so determine what you will end up doing... if you do poorly, you risked being stuck in some trou (one horse) regional state department for the rest of your life.”

After their stint of public service, graduates then tend to move into politics or into private sector, getting the best jobs at the best salaries. No students have to look for jobs after the course, an ENA brochure explains - "the jobs come to them". Finally, more than a few end up in the civil or criminal courts.

Like énarque Jean-Marie Messier, former head of French media group Vivendi Universal. In 2003, when the giant French media group collapsed with crushing debts, the Paris Commercial Court had to authorise a freeze on the €20.5 million ($25m) severance approved for Messier by Vivendi’s Chief Operating Officer, énarque Eric Licoys. The court then froze a similar pay-off to Licoys approved by Messier. The ex-chairman is now on bail of €1m ($1.25m) while French courts investigate share price manipulation, misuse of company funds and publication of misleading information.

Like énarque Pierre Bilger, ex-chairman of Alstom. In his two years at the helm, he crippled the engineering firm, maker of the prestigious TGV high speed train, with €4.9bn debts and saw its shares drop by 90%. His severance package was €3.9 million ($4.8m). He currently faces a formal inquiry by the US securities & exchange commission into accounting irregularities at its US transport unit.

Like énarque Roland Dumas, head of the Constitutional Court, who in March 2002 took “temporary leave” pending inquiries into gifts allegedly received from the then state-owned Elf oil company when he was foreign minister.

Like former prime minister, énarque Alain Juppé, convicted of presiding over illegal party funding while Secretary-General of President Chirac's Union for a Popular Majority (UMP) during the ‘80s.

Like énarque Bernard Bonnet, former prefect of Corsica, accused of burning down a restaurant so he could blame it on Corsican nationalists.

Like the énarques amongst the six former or current leaders of political parties, the thirty ex-ministers; over a hundred former or serving members of parliament or mayors, and a quarter of the heads of the forty biggest companies (some of whom have since left), all of whom are or have been subject to official investigations into corruption.

But not like the current prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a blokeish provincial not in the énarque mould at all. His cabinet only has two énarques (the last one had eight with two-thirds of the ministerial directeurs de cabinet being énarques or polytechniciens). 

ENA has been lambasted for being socially selective and anti-freemarket. Bernard Zimmern, author of a recent book called “Les profiteurs de l'Etat” (“They Profit from the State”), is not alone in complaining about énarques being indoctrinated with "statist propaganda to the glory of the public service". Raffarin seems to have listened.

Prompted by a growing outcry in the French parliament and the press, he is pushing through reforms to ENA, which include uprooting the school from Paris and placing it in Strasbourg. However, his reforms have been mild; the guarantee of high-flying civil service posts for all graduates, much demanded by anti-ENA campaigners, has not been abolished. 

And the move to Strasbourg may not be as innocent as it seems. After all, the city is home to the world’s fastest burgeoning, highest-paid civil service – the European Commission. The current French European Commissioner is Jacques Barrot, a close ally of Jacques Chirac and a former minister convicted in 2000 of embezzling party funds (a fact he did not reveal at his appointment hearings before the commission in 2004). 

Barrot is, obviously, a graduate of the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris.


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