Emmanuel Macron announced Thursday plans to scrap France’s elite ENA graduate school, which four modern presidents have attended including him, and replace it with a new institute.
The Ecole Nationale d’Administration, known as ENA, is today a small Strasbourg-based finishing school for top civil servants that has become a symbol of elitism in France.
Created in the aftermath of World War II, admission guarantees an influential job in the upper reaches of the public sector and has long been viewed as the most promising route into politics.
Macron, who attended from 2002–2004, told senior civil servants he was going to “abolish ENA” and replace it with a new institute called the “Public Service Institute”.
He said the new institute would continue to train graduates for senior positions in the public sector, but would have a mission to introduce more diversity.
He called the changes a “profound revolution in terms of recruitment”, while stressing he did not want to add to unfair criticism of his alma mater.
“It so happens that I don’t forget where I came from and what I owe to this training and I want to pay tribute to its work,” he said.
The announcement confirms a previous call from Macron to scrap ENA which he made in 2019 following “yellow vest” anti-government protests which highlighted inequality.
Macron has previously criticised ENA for taking in fewer students from a working-class background than at the end of the last century, even though the school is in theory open to all.
In February, Macron said that 1,000 places would be created in two new programmes to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds to apply to France’s top graduates schools.
He 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”.
Studies show that ENA’s student intake is dominated by the children of wealthy, professional families.
“Among the vital problems in France, there is one that you are aware of every day: it’s the absolute fracture between the base of society people who work, who are retired, who are unemployed, young people, students — and the supposed elite,” Francois Bayrou, a close political ally of Macron, told France Inter radio on Thursday.
The school was created in 1945 when France needed to rebuild its civil service, parts of which had collaborated with France’s Nazi occupiers during World War II.
It succeeded initially in opening up the vast public administration to people drawn from different backgrounds, rather than the old aristocracy and upper classes which had traditionally dominated the state.
Its success in producing highly-qualified public administrators has spawned copycat institutions in other countries, including Russia.
Previous presidents who have attended ENA include Francois Hollande, Jacques Chirac and Valery Giscard d’Estaing.
Chirac hated “the crazy atmosphere which reigned at the school” in which “everything was backwards, we spied on each other, where we wanted to win at any price,” he wrote in an unpublished autobiography.
Nine out of 23 of the last prime ministers are ENA graduates, known as Enarques, as well as around 15 percent of the 672 ministers of the modern state.