French Meritocracy 
Égalité and Higher Education

Nina Cohen explores the controversy surrounding the "grandes écoles", France's elite super-universities

The French flag hanging in the Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Nina Cohen.

The French flag hanging in the Arc de Triomphe. Photo by Nina Cohen.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, the ternary motto for which the French Republic is famous, adorns the nation’s municipal institutions from its libraries to French euro coins to the façades of its public schools. The first two of these values (fraternité was added later), first adopted in the French Revolution of 1789, represented a zeitgeist of the revolutionary suffragist fervor and of the liberal tropes propagated by the philosophes. Inspired by the events and achievements of the recent revolution their country had assisted outre-Atlantique, for France the Jacobins envisioned a model of Republican politics infused with the Enlightenment ideals of tolerance, rationality and progress. They hoped to foment radical change, to create a freer, more open society and to replace the arbitrary and corrupt rule of the ancien régime and the Catholic Church with the august Republican model of civic virtue, justice and popular sovereignty. Their aspirations were not limited to political reform; the Jacobins hoped to enable France to achieve its potential as a bastion of cultural, scientific and social eminence.

Central to this project and to the unity of the Republic were the promotion and protection of French civic values, which, from the time of the Revolution, were seen to originate in the schoolroom. Regarded as the wellspring of equality, education was centralised and secularised, curriculums standardised to provide instruction in Republican morality and the public and private virtues as well as an array of academic subjects, free and compulsory for all French citizens. The grandes écoles, graduate-level teaching institutions, were founded to educate an elite corps of individuals who could attend to the various needs of the nation. In keeping with the Republican commitment to virtue and equality and its rejection of ancien régime nepotism, their students were selected exclusively on the basis of merit, without regard for wealth or social position.

The grandes écoles, which stand apart from the university system and educate only a small fraction of the nation’s most successful students, continue to produce a striking concentration of sociopolitical elites. These institutions have been the subject of ongoing debate in a country where education has always been a highly contentious issue, especially since the riots of May-June 1968 led to a restructuring of the university system. In 2010, President Sarkozy proposed a 30% quota of low-income entrants to the grandes écoles, a motion that was met with the immediate vitriol of the Conférence des Grandes Écoles (CGE), which argued that such a measure “would lead inevitably to a lowering of standards”. The Jacobins’ meritocratic project, it seems, has fallen short of its essentially egalitarian aspirations and has left the grandes écoles’ ivory tower standing upon shaky ground. The current state of affairs begs pressing questions about the state of meritocracy in France and the ongoing sustainability of its education system.

The grande école system comprises a number of the world’s most celebrated academic institutions, including the École Polytechnique (“X”), École Normale Supérieure, Rue d’Ulm (ENS), Hautes Etudes Commerciales (HEC) and Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA). These institutions, unique to France and some of its former colonies, typically do not award diplomas but instead prepare their students for rigorous service examinations.

The grandes écoles are by far the best funded educational institutions in France, consuming nearly 30% of the higher education budget to educate a mere 4% of post-graduate students. With the exception of the commerce schools, the students of the grandes écoles are “Civil Servant Trainees” and as such receive monthly stipends from the state. They benefit from the best facilities and from student-instructor ratios unseen elsewhere in the French education system. Upon graduation, even those ultimately unsuccessful in the service examinations enjoy unparalleled employment prospects and security – the envy of employees in every sector of the job market in France and abroad. As Richard Descoings, the director of Sciences-Po, a venerated grande école, commented in a 2010 Financial Times article, “in France, you crack the champagne when you get onto the admission list for one of the grandes écoles, not when you graduate.”

It is easy to see why. Graduates of the best of these super-universities predominate across the upper echelons of French society. According to The Economist, in 2006 half of all CEOs of CAC 40 index companies had attended a grande école. Former Normaliens and Polytechniciens occupy many of the highest posts in the French academic and cultural hierarchy. Meanwhile, eight of the last ten prime ministers and two of the three presidents incumbent during that period were educated within the grandes écoles system. Three-quarters of these politicians attended ENA, Charles de Gaulle’s meritocratic project intended to draw the most gifted French students into government service.

Admission to the top grandes écoles is elusive, typically in the range of 3-5% of all applicants. In its entirety, the system educates only 6% of high school graduates. Students are selected on the basis of extremely competitive written and oral examinations (concours), for which the majority of successful applicants cram for two to three years in grueling, intensely competitive preparatory colleges. These institutions are themselves extremely selective, accepting only a very small minority of the nation’s most successful secondary students.

For the past 60 years French sociologists have studied the state of social and economic diversity within the grandes écoles and have long observed the vast over-representation of bourgeois students. These academics conclude that the admissions procedures – which restrict access to a tiny percentage of those who have excelled in France’s successively tracked education system, and ultimately depend upon success in extraordinarily competitive examinations – have proven a largely insurmountable barrier for those from poorer, less educated backgrounds. Descoings avers that France “used to have an aristocracy of blood. Now we have a new aristocracy of status conferred by success in getting into this school or that”, a position expounded in Pierre Bourdieu’s (a renowned social theorist) 1989 book about the elite institutions. Beyond bursary schemes, explicit efforts to increase economic, ethnic and gender minority representation within the grandes écoles – such as affirmative action programs – have been repeatedly rejected, a trend evidenced most recently by Sarkozy’s failed intervention.

But inegalitarian critiques of the grandes écoles have hardly been limited to the institutions’ admissions procedures. Many of the most vehement rebukes have come from those concerned with the state of the over-burdened, poorly funded university system, which is open to all citizens with a secondary school degree and is blighted by a nearly 41% dropout rate. The grandes écoles, many contend, siphon not only the best students but an unjustly disproportionate share of available resources – 30 percent of the higher education budget for only 4 percent of all post-secondary students – from the rest of the higher education system, deteriorating the quality of the universities, whose positions in international education rankings continue to fall. This has led to the depreciation of the diplomas they grant, undermining the educational and employment opportunities available to the vast majority of French students. What is perhaps most striking about the French higher education system is its bipolarity, its division between the extraordinarily selective and generously subsidized grandes écoles and the entirely unselective and impoverished mass universities, a model that undeniably perpetuates the concentration of educational – and arguably, in turn, political and economic – privilege among an elite few.

Jacobin Republicanism, with its embrace of “la République une et indivisible” – a universalist conception of the state that depends upon the shared national identity of its citizenry – is inherently hostile to identity politics, multicultural and differentialist arguments, an antinomy that has left little room for diversification efforts within the grandes écoles. In their censure of Sarkozy’s proposed quota scheme, the CGE asserted that they must continue to serve only the “veritable republican elite”, an elite selected solely on the basis of merit. To consider any criteria other than intellectual achievement and distinction, they contended, would transgress the republican ideal of meritocratic justice.

The French republican commitment to meritocracy derives from its egalitarianism, from the belief that with proper, universal education and with industry, the most gifted students will be able to rise to the greatest heights, regardless of their socioeconomic origin. Implicit in the Jacobins’ republican project was the assumption that centralized, open public institutions – especially primary schools – could correct for social inequalities. But this has not proven to be the case, a fact suggested by the grandes écoles’ poor diversity statistics, which has led to the seemingly cyclical transmission of educational, professional and political privilege among a relatively homogenous, elite few.

Without a significant measure of equality of opportunity, pure meritocracy degenerates into oligarchy, the endogamous transmission of power within a small, elite group. And in France, sprawling, underserved and volatile housing estates, largely populated by immigrant communities, serve as an especially appreciable example of lingering inequalities; a reminder that an assumption of substantive equality of opportunity would be naïve by any account. As it grapples with the many ramifications of an increasingly diverse society, France faces a number of dilemmas about the durability, relevance and continued moral justification of identity-blind, eighteenth century republican political ideals. Nowhere are these concerns more pressing than in the realm of education, which in most modern societies bears a close relationship to the transmission and distribution of power. This is especially true in France, where the grandes écoles explicitly enmesh educational achievement with political and economic leverage.

The French must evaluate whether or not true meritocracy is possible within the nation’s sociopolitical context, whether or not social conditions are such that early on, all talent is, to a fair standard, equally identified and nurtured. And most fundamentally, France must consider what social criteria need to be met in order to render the grandes écoles’ unmitigated meritocracy consistent with the egalitarian demands of the nation’s unique and essential republicanism. Whether or not such reconciliation is possible will depend upon on an honest and inevitably difficult reevaluation of what, in light of current social realities, égalité entails.