Education

Macron's plan to get more social diversity into France’s elite ENA school

French President Emmanuel Macron, February 2021
French President Emmanuel Macron, February 2021 Photo by Ludovic Marin, Pool via AP

President Emmanuel Macron has announced plans to promote social diversity at the the highest level of public service and encourage underprivileged youth to get into higher education.

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Macron would like the higher echelons of public service to better reflect contemporary French society but it's not happening. Young people from low income families, and especially those of African or Arab descent, rarely make their way into the likes of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), France’s elite finish school for senior civil servants. 

"France's social elevator is functioning less well than 50 years ago," the President said on a visit to the western city of Nantes on Thursday. 

He was there to unveil the "Talents" programme which will reserve around one thousand places for poorer students in five prestigious colleges across the country. Six places will be reserved at ENA.

"No kid in France [should] say to themselves: ‘this is not for the likes of me’”, he told pupils at the Regional Administration Institute (IRA).

But there was clearly more coaching to be done.

"I don't want to go to ENA,” one student told Macon. “I would feel like an imposter."

“In rural areas we don’t know much about jobs in the civil service,” remarked Lilian Cailleau, 23, who grew up in a farming family.

Special merit

Youngsters accepted on the Talents programme will receive a 4,000 euro diversity grant, along with special coaching to take the entrance exam.

Boris Walbaum, co-founder of the Article 1 association, welcomed the measures.

“When you come from underprivileged background  you don't have the same study conditions as the others,” he told RFI. “Your desk might be just 50cm wide, and you often have to work as well as study. The more privileged students are also helped by their families. The Talent programme recognises these young people's special merit.”

The move to get a better cross-section of the population into the colleges that produce France’s elites is a turnabout for Macron. In April 2019, in the wake of Yellow Vest protests over inequality, he vowed to scrap ENA as it was seen as a bastion of French elitism.

But instead, he's chosen to reform the institution.

A gimmick

Benjamin Chkroun, founder of HUB de la Réussite, backs the initiative but said it doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s a bit of a gimmick to say we’re going to help youngsters from housing estates to get into ENA,” he told RFI. “It’s not the first time we’ve seen these kind of programmes. It helps a section of this young population,  but we forget about all the others.”

On Friday the government launched an anti-discrimination platform as part of its equality of opportunity agenda. Cases of discrimination can be reported via internet or on a toll-free number 3928. It's managed by the French Rights Defender along with several associations and employs 10 specialised lawyers.

Macron announced the platform's creation in an interview with Brut in December. “When you are not white, you are more likely to get checked by the police. You are identified as a problem factor, and that's unbearable," he said.

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