A version of this article was first published on The Conversation France.
On Tuesday, February 18th, 2020, Frédéric Thiriez submitted his report on the reform of the French senior public service. The report addresses three main priorities stated by the executive: opening up senior public service positions, diversifying its recruitment methods, and boosting its careers.
The authors propose quite an overhaul of the institution. The Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA) would thus become l’Ecole d’administration publique (EAP) and would be classified as a higher education establishment, placed under the umbrella of Paris Sciences et Lettres university. An overhauled entry competition, a common basis of six months followed by four months in the field, and the exit rankings abolished, Frédéric Thiriez has proposed a veritable catalogue of changes that the government should swiftly consider.
Macron’s announcement that he would be closing the ENA had sparked heated debates between the school’s detractors and supporters of a much less radical overhaul.
It is indeed no small thing to put an end to the system introduced by the order of October 9th, 1945 by the Provisional Government of the French Republic, then led by General de Gaulle. Its objective was threefold: select future senior civil servants, train them on their future responsibilities, and assign them to their first job according to their exit ranking.
A subjective reflection
The following observations stem from my personal experience with ENA over the past two decades. I have taught there since 1998, in 2002 becoming the coordinator of the “negotiating in public administration” seminar for the entire class. What have I learned after twenty years with this school that I can contribute to the reflections on its closure [c1] and the system that will succeed it? Let’s review the three purposes of the ENA - selection, training, assignment – to highlight how in fact, the problem lies elsewhere.
One criticism is that recruitment is not democratic enough. However, the impression of those who teach at ENA is rather different: the internal competition (open to all civil servants with four years of experience) and the third competition (open to all those with eight years of experience in the private or voluntary sectors) add diversity to the candidates from the external competition, dominated by students from Sciences Po Paris.
Every year, I have met interesting students from a variety of regions and backgrounds. Further, the classes are international, with a quarter of the students coming from abroad. Having met former students several times while on assignments abroad, I have firsthand experience of the school’s global influence, highlighted by its 3500 foreign alumni.
A general lack of higher education democratization in France
What do the numbers say? They show a disparity between the sociological profile of a class of ENA graduates and that of the French population. In the current ENA graduating class, the director of the ENA stated that “only 19% of students have a parent in the working-class, who is a shopkeeper, a clerk, a farmer, a craftsman, or unemployed”. That proportion is flipped in the general French population, where white-collar and highly qualified employees number less than 20%.
This difference can be found in all the French grandes écoles (highly selective universities that admit students based on their results on national exams that follow two years of preparatory classes) and all selective university programs. The minister of Higher Education and Research, Frédérique Vidal, identified this discrepancy during her speech to the Conférence des grandes écoles. This lack of democratization is primarily due to flaws in the French national education and higher education systems in general.
This lack of democratization in recruitment is thus merely one symptom amongst others, as noted by OECD surveys that have indicated that the French system is one of those that least reduces inequalities from the start.
Measures like doubling the number of classes offered in deprived zones identified as high priority for education, as decided by minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, and popular education measures such as ESSEC’s “Une grande école, pourquoi pas moi? (An elite university, why not me?)”, launched in 2002, will have a more concrete effect on the democratization of access to higher education.
Is this type of training truly “obsolete”?
Without attempting to identify all that is necessary to train future public officials in this brief article, I will focus on outlining what several successive directors of the ENA have asked me to coordinate, namely the seminar on negotiation in public administration.
What do we teach the future public official in this three-day seminar? To defend the interests entrusted in them by the political decision-makers, that hopefully align with public interest. To obtain consensus whenever possible. To face dissent with dignity when necessary.
And to achieve those goals: to focus on cooperation and teamwork rather than competition and confrontation; to promote teamwork rather than individual work; to listen sincerely rather than resorting to rhetoric; and above all, to avoid overconfidence. But what are three days in a whole system?
Based on real-life scenarios, this seminar inaugurates the schooling of each class. Since 2014, part of each class has chosen to take the seminar in English - because in the 21st century, French public officials will also need to negotiate in English over the course of their career.
Why is the ranking system under fire?
Now let’s address the ranking system, which will determine appointment to the first post of one’s career. Why does it draw so much criticism? When questioned in March 2003 by the commission of the reform of the ENA, presided over by Yves-Thibault de Silguy, I indicated, paraphrasing Churchill, that “the ranking system is the worst system, to the exclusion of all others”.
It certainly has its faults, including students’ excessive focus on their grading. However, these faults do not negate the system’s legitimacy for obtaining the best posts. For example, the pre-war systems of family and personal connections too often influenced access to the most prestigious jobs.
« The boot », an obsession to rethink
The most valid criticism of the ranking system is that its head, curiously nicknamed “the boot”, allows for direct access to the most prestigious and powerful State departments: Conseil d’État, Inspection des Finances, Cour des comptes. This is not healthy during school. This is not mobilizing afterward.
L’ENA should lead to three sections: civil administrators, magistrates of the regional audit chambers, and magistrates of the administrative courts. It should only be after the beginning of one’s career, in light of proven accomplishments, that graduates should be able to apply to a higher jurisdiction or an inspection body. Such a selection procedure would benefit from looking to what already exists in France: The École de Guerre, which every year identifies the most promising officers for appointment to higher ranks.
“The State is contempt”
Ultimately, the problem lies elsewhere. Or, to be more precise, after the ENA. It is this French affliction which Edgar Pisani, minister in the governments of Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterand, summarized bluntly: in France, “the state is contempt”.
This French Resistance member, who became France’s youngest departmental representative after WWII, said that he found “there is something of the Ancient Regime in our centralized Republican state”, something amounting to “contempt”.
The State does not listen to the middlemen enough. The high commissaries of the State do not pay enough attention to their fellow citizens, to the extent that the latter perceive them as willingly contemptuous. Careful observation has often led me to the following thought: the power of a French public official is inversely proportional to the probability that he will cross his fellow citizens in his daily life.
This distrust is illustrated in the declaration of Marie-Françoise Bechtel, state counsellor and former director of the ENA from 2000 to 20002, in Libération on April 17th, 2019: “L’ENA’s location in Strasbourg is problematic. It is worth reviewing the fact that the State’s administration is trained in such a remote, isolated city."
Strasbourg is an hour and 46 minutes away from Paris by high speed train, with a connection almost every hour. By that criteria, we would have to classify all of France south of Lyon as isolated, and all of France west of Limoges as remote!
Coercion is becoming less and less effective
These cookie-cutter formulas feed the impression of our fellow citizens that “the State is contempt”. Our long-standing passion for equality is reinforced by the trend reinforced at the end of the last century by Anthony Giddens and other sociologists: in democratic societies, hierarchical or symbolic distance between leaders and those who are led becomes unbearable to the latter.
In a society that is becoming increasingly horizontal, to the detriment of standards and injunctions that are willingly vertical, coercion becomes less and less effective, and convincing more and more necessary. It is thus unclear whether abolishing ENA is enough to convince.