Jonathan Miller

The real problem with Macron’s elite school

The real problem with Macron’s elite school
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President Emmanuel Macron announced today the closure of the notorious École Nationale d’Administration, the elite finishing school for the senior civil servants and politicians who have wrecked France. Perhaps nothing could serve France better than burning down its Strasbourg campus and salting the earth, but there’s less to this than meets the eye. This is the third time he’s announced this.

Statism is the religion of ENA, which explains why its brilliant graduates have conspicuously failed to create a single Google, Amazon, Facebook or Apple. Its graduates have manoeuvred France, a nation that once led the world in innovation and creativity, into a cul de sac of ‘immobilisme,’ crushing innovation while creating for its citizens a sort of Absurdistan, a bureaucratically sclerotic, low- to no-growth economy where there are riots every night and you currently need a permit to walk your dog after 7pm.

One indication of this immobilism is that reform of ENA was first proposed 50 years ago, and nothing has happened. Jean-Louis Debré, president of the constitutional council, has already denounced Macron’s reforms as ‘populism.’

A post-war creation of General De Gaulle, ENA’s graduates, referred to as Énarques, inhabit a planet entirely separate from that of ordinary French people. ENA’s influence on French society and economy has arguably been even more malign than PPE graduates of Oxford University on Britain. Macron, who managed to cut wealth taxes and raise diesel prices simultaneously the moment he got into office, provoking the revolt of the gilets jaunes, is of course himself a graduate of ENA.

Macron’s tame journalists have spent the day advancing and praising the president’s planned reforms (a ‘strong measure’ declared the France 24 news channel, even before any of the details were announced). But I doubt this subject would much interest the patrons of the Café de la Paix, which is in any case currently closed.

Does Macron seriously believe that he’s going to appease the sans culottes and establish real egalitarianism by closing the ENA – or, as is more likely, simply changing its name? Or is this mere cynicism or self-delusion? The shallowness of Macron’s critique of ENA points to this being a purely cosmetic exercise in distraction rather than reform.

Macron has concluded that ENA is too elite (surely the entire point), but he’s said nothing about the ethos or curriculum. Mainly because a central pillar of ENA ideology is a quasi-religious faith in ‘Europe’ as the solution to all that ails France. This happens to be precisely the core of Macron’s own ideology. A previous director of ENA, Nathalie Loiseau, is head of Macron’s group at the European Parliament, having led his party to humiliation in 2019 European elections, with not much more than 20 per cent of the vote. In Brussels and Strasbourg her impact has been invisible.

The closure seems designed more as a PR stunt than a serious reform. ‘No child of the Republic should be able to say, this isn’t for me.’ Macron has said of ENA. This suggests that the only thing likely to change is the letterhead.

Will this really amount to more than changing the plaque on the front door of the ENA’s Strasbourg campus? That is highly doubtful. ENA may have been conceived as a way to put the Republic in the hands of the bourgeoisie rather than the high nobility, but in effect it has turned into a factory producing a new nobility.

Alumni include presidents Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, Jacques Chirac, François Hollande and Macron, prime ministers Édouard Balladur, Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé, Laurent Fabius, Michel Rocard, Édouard Philippe and Jean Castex; along with the presidents of Benin and Egypt, prime ministers of Togo and the Congo, and presidents of the European Commission and International Court of Justice. This is a very abbreviated list.

Although the ENA was supposed to produce a cadre of leaders loyal to the state, many of its graduates go on to run companies in the private and parastatal sectors, including BNP Paribas, Renault, Air France, Vivendi, SNCF, La Poste and Michelin.

The problem with technocrats is that they’re often very poor at delivering much beyond an exalted status for themselves. The fumbling of Covid in France is but one example.

Macron promised to implement his closure of ENA before the end of his current five-year term. A good idea, as he may not get another.

Jonathan Miller is on Twitter @lefoudubaron