The woeful consequences of French elitism

"At a time when France is struggling to maintain its place in the world, its elitist culture is a handicap not an advandage."

If France were a TV show, it would be France’s Got Talent, a fiercely competitive contest to show off how clever you are.

For the tiny number selected, the rewards are huge. These are the self-confident, sometimes arrogant, people at the pinnacle of society, the government ministers and especially the civil servants in their cabinets, the CEOs of companies, the top financiers.

But unlike reality TV, this is not a contest that values a multitude of different talents: the winners tend to be the same sort of people from the same schools who take part in competitive exams for which they have been prepared since childhood.

Unfortunately for France, the contest is bad for the nation as a whole. Those chosen aren’t always the best suited for the role, while the losers are marked for life. The entire contest is flawed.

Ever since I arrived in Paris in 2002 as a correspondent for Time, I have been surprised by this pervasive culture of elitism. It starts at school, with ferocious competition from a very young age, and reaches its apogee in higher education, through the grandes écoles system. For the 5% of the population who gain admission to these prestigious graduate schools, and especially for the tiny number that reach the two most exclusive ones, the Ecole Nationale d’Administration and Ecole Polytechnique, professional successs seems assured. But while this culture is able to produce a tiny number of brilliant and charming men and women who constitute the ruling class, it leaves the vast majority of the population frustrated, de-motivated or feeling discarded.

At both school and at work, there are comparable phenomena of stress and submission, of dysfunctional relationships with teachers or hierarchical superiors, of a sense of isolation, frustration and sometimes helplessness. Far more than their contemporaries in other European countries, the French feel that their talents aren’t recognized or valued.

Worst of all, France is badly served by its elites. They are brilliant at writing reports, but much less skilled at putting the conclusions into practice. In business, companies with an “old-boy” network of directors who went to the same schools perform relatively poorly. In the public sector, France’s elite has missed out on some of the most important developments of the past two decades to improve the efficiency and transparency of public administration.

At a time when France is struggling to maintain its place in the world, this elitist culture is thus a handicap, not an advantage. Is it possible to change it? In France’s Got Talent, I try to answer this question from two perspectives. I draw on my 10 years as a journalist in France to provide an outsider’s view, but I also bring my experience as an insider, both as a lecturer and former member of the administration at Sciences Po, one of the pillars of this elitist system. I witnessed a crisis that rocked this institution in 2011-12, but I also got insight into the profound changes taking place in an establishment that has formed French leaders for 140 years.

This essay, an account of my journey through the French elitist system, is my modest contribution to the national debate about what France needs to change if it is to regain its sparkle and maintain its position among the leading nations of the world.