Macron Closes ENA, in Bid to Diversify France’s Public Service

The institution had become a symbol of privilege in a society where social mobility has broken down.,

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PARIS — There are elite schools and then there is ENA, the small French graduate college that has turned out presidents and prime ministers with such cookie-cutter consistency that it is no exaggeration to say France has been run by its “enarques.”

President Emmanuel Macron attended the Strasbourg-based finishing school for top civil servants. So did the two prime ministers he has appointed. So did his predecessor, Francois Hollande. So did Jacques Chirac. At a time of growing social fracture, no other institution has symbolized a clubby, mostly male French elitism as vividly as the Ecole Nationale d’Administration.

Now, it’s gone. Mr. Macron announced on Thursday the closure of ENA, and its replacement by a new Institute of Public Service, or ISP, as part of what he called a “deep revolution in recruitment for public service.”

The decision, one year ahead of a presidential election, is intended to signal Mr. Macron’s determination to democratize opportunity and create a public service that is more transparent and efficient. Earlier this year, he deplored the fact that France’s “social elevator” had broken down and worked “less well than 50 years ago.”

A statement from the presidency said that the closure of ENA was part of the “the most important reform of the senior public service” since the creation of the school and other public institutions by Charles de Gaulle in 1945. At the time, a France destroyed by war and shamed by Vichy collaboration with the Nazis needed to rebuild its democratic state in its entirety.

How much the new institute will be ENA by another name remains to be seen.

The statement said that future graduates would have to be more mobile, going to work initially in regional jobs to gain on-the-ground experience before taking up positions of “direction, control or judgment.” Promotions would no longer be based on length of experience but on performance and demonstrated willingness to move around the country.

ENA has been widely criticized as a private club offering life membership to the initiated. Only 1 percent of the last graduating class of 80 had a working-class parent.

Future “enarques” came mainly from affluent, professional families; they passed into a gilded world of opportunity in both the private and public sectors. Mr. Macron is the wunderkind of this process, becoming president at the age of 39, after graduating from ENA 13 years earlier.

But the violent Yellow Vest protests that began in late 2018, an uprising of the marginalized, demonstrated how sharp French social tensions had become. Outside a hyper-connected metropolitan world, many French people felt ignored. Denied opportunity, they were somehow invisible.

ImagePresident Charles de Gaulle and other leaders at a gathering of ENA alumni in 1963.
President Charles de Gaulle and other leaders at a gathering of ENA alumni in 1963.Credit…Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Mr. Macron embarked on a national debate to fathom the causes of the revolt, and on April 25, 2019, announced for the first time that his alma mater would be eliminated. It was a powerful symbolic gesture, but it met opposition and two years went by without any follow-up. ENA, it seemed, would survive after all.

Earlier this year, during a visit to Nantes, the president announced a program called “Talents” designed to ensure that, when it comes to elite schools for senior public service positions, “no kid from our republic ever says that this is not for me.”

Among the measures announced then was the designation of several spots a year at ENA for students from underprivileged backgrounds, particularly the dismal projects on the outskirts of big cities where many Muslim immigrants are concentrated. Thursday’s statement made clear this program would continue at the new institute.

Mr. Macron has made the modernization of the French state a priority, pushing to eliminate excessive bureaucracy and create a more efficient, performance-based public service. It is a work in progress.

The president has been criticized for focusing his energy on attracting voters to the right of the political spectrum in a bid to head off a challenge from the rightist leader Marine Le Pen. In that context, honoring a decision initially taken in response to the Yellow Vest movement and intended to promote social mobility and greater diversity in senior state posts appeared important.

“Among the vital problems in France, there is one that you are aware of every day: It’s the complete 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 political ally of Macron, told France Inter radio.

It remains to be seen whether some deep reform takes place, so that officials at the summit of the state begin at last to look a little more like a diverse French society.

Constant Meheut contributed reporting from Paris.

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