Emmanuel Macron has kept his promise: The French head of government has announced that he will close the elite École nationale d’administration (ENA) school. Two years ago, France’s president had promised that he would abolish the school founded in 1945 to train top administrators.
In the eyes of many French people, the ENA is the symbol of an arrogant administration that is out of touch with life, that can’t get any kind of regulation done, but afterwards always knows what the problem was and shines above all in one thing: awarding the best jobs to its own cadre.
From the very beginning, Macron’s announcement smacked of an action that was aimed at creating popular sentiment or was even window dressing. The president had a report prepared on possible alternatives. Then, however, things went very quiet on the issue.
The ENA and its defenders organized resistance: smoothly backing down, playing for time. They almost seemed to have won: Before Macron’s speech on Thursday evening, it was assumed that he had quietly cashed in on his promise.
But that is not the case. It is possibly due to the approaching campaign for the regional elections and the presidential election next year that Macron is now remembering his promise. This offers him the opportunity to present himself as a reformer once again. In any case, the elite school will soon be a thing of the past.
“The ENA has ended up becoming an institution that divides individuals into classes,” Macron criticized in a speech behind closed doors to which only representatives of the state’s high administration were invited. He said it would be eliminated, and in its place a “Public Service Institute (ISP) would be created.”
This, he said, should differ from the ENA in key ways: “The ISP will give every student the opportunity of an education where they learn to act, to lead, to decide, to innovate, and it will provide excellent teaching that is internationally recognized.”
The last comment in particular contains bitter, because accurate, criticism of ENA: it considers itself an institute of excellence. But internationally, it plays virtually no role in research or teaching, unlike other elite French schools such as those for engineering.
Macron nonetheless hastened to dispense a minimum of caresses: “It’s not at all about denigrating ENA, I don’t forget where I come from.” Macron himself graduated from the Strasbourg-based elite school, finishing fifth in his class. That opened the door for him to join the administration’s most coveted corps, that of financial inspectors.
The Court of Audit and the Council of State rank second and third, respectively. Membership in a corps lasts a lifetime: one can work elsewhere for a few years, but always retains the right to return to one’s original unit. Macron was one of very few to renounce this privilege even before he became president.
The government’s task now is to work out the reform in detail. The president gave the broad outlines : “The ISP will have to build a strong partnership with universities and rely on an excellent faculty with more diverse profiles.” ENA graduates are recruited largely from the upper classes, with very few coming from the “classes populaires” or being the children of migrants.
That’s about to change. “I hope that we can open things up a bit in terms of selection criteria, not to lose excellence, but to have a more open selection in light of all the studies that have been done, which will allow us to select less socially determined profiles ” Macron became clear.
But it is not at all a question of losing excellence, on the contrary, it is to be gained now more than ever: “The ISP will offer an education according to the best international standards, with degrees that are also recognized at the European and international level.”
The successor to the ENA, he said, should “train not only methods and essential subjects, but also a general culture and disciplines, open-mindedness, the ability to develop in academic circles and understand the major developments in the world, and therefore be much more ambitious than we have been.”
The president also wants to reorganize cooperation between the ISP and other top institutes. “I charge the prime minister with a profound revolution,” Macron concluded. The word revolution, that always goes down well in France.