Political connections are often controversial — don’t look further than Bullingdon — and in France, a selected elite governs and they may be partisan, but old school ties often bind them.
Every country has its elite colleges and institutions, but the grandest and the most elite of them all is perhaps the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), whose graduates are called énarques. Seven of France’s last twelve prime ministers were énarques, and 46% of 600-plus senior private and public sector leaders in the country came from one of three grandes écoles, which include ENA.
Even by these gilded standards, ENA’s Class of 1980 is above and beyond; even from the earliest days, their collective ambition was clear in the name they chose and considered for their class. (French graduating classes from grandes écoles have to choose a class name based on a famous person or concept). They chose Promotion Voltaire, and other proposed names included Rousseau, Louise Michel, Jean Monnet and Droits de l’homme.
If their collective name sounds grandiose, they have their reasons to be; it was one of the most politically active classes in ENA’s recent memory. Some thirty of them formed a short-lived student group called CARENA (le Comité d’action pour une réforme démocratique de l’ENA), and extraordinarily for a group that only comprises of 80 people, the class eventually went on to produce so many famous names: one prime minister (Dominique de Villepin), several cabinet ministers (Jean-Pierre Jouyet, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, Jean-Maurice Ripert, Michel Sapin, Pierre Duquesne, Frederique Bredin, Brigitte Joseph-Jeanneney, Patrick Delage) who went on to become senior ambassadors and regulators, countless representatives to the National Assembly, and industry titans (Nicolas Duhamel at Havas, Benard Cottin at Canel+ and Numéricable, Henri de Castries of AXA; Pierre Mongin of the Paris metro).
But perhaps the most well-known of ’80ers are two socialist party presidential candidates, Ségolène Royal and Francois Hollande, who began their courtship in the grand halls of ENA. M. Hollande who will probably win the French Presidency in May is further surrounded by other golden boys and girls from 1980. His manifesto “Contract of the Generation” was written by the famous tax lawyer Dominique Villemot ’80. His campaign finance manager is Jean-Jacques Augier ’80, the mighty investor behind many Parisian bookstores and taxi company G7. M. Jouyet, now the head of the financial-markets regulator and Mdm. Bredin, a socialist party doyenne and now the Inspector General of Finances are both tipped for senior posts in a Hollande presidency. (See full list of Promotion Voltaire here).
Their success is probably because France’s very flimsy divide between civil service, private sector and government, and because there are énarques are on both sides of the political spectrum…. and The Economist, from whose article the idea for this post came, has this to say:
Enarques, who tend to be fiercely clever and answer questions with the phrase “There are three points,” shrug off accusations of elitism. The college selects its students on merit in a competitive exam, and tuition is free. ENA was set up in 1945 as a meritocratic institution meant to produce a post-war administrative elite. Yet since about 1980, fewer people from poorer backgrounds have got in. The share of working-class students at the top four grandes écoles, including ENA, fell from 29% in the 1950s to 9% in the mid-1990s, finds one study.
(Since this article was written, Francois Hollande had indeed won the Presidency. His cabinet will be headed by two members of the Class of 1980: Sylvie Hubac as Director and Pierre-René Lemas as Secrétaire Général (Chief of Staff). See here for details.)