Old School, New Age

Charles de Gaulle established ENA, the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, in 1945 with characteristic flourish and an unerring instinct for la Grandeur. He staffed it with former members of the Resistance. Its campus stood majestically--symbolically--in the Rue des Sts-Peres, the Street of Our Fathers. The first graduating class was deified as "Veterans." His vision: to assemble the nation's best and brightest, groom them for power and send them into the world to assume their rightful stewardship of the glory that is France. Six of the 14 prime ministers of the Fifth Republic passed through its hallowed corridors, as have scores of ministers, diplomats and industry chief executives. Gaullist President Jacques Chirac is an enarque. So is his socialist prime minister and nine of the 27 ministers making up the current coalition government. Tycoons Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi and Michel Bon of France Telecom proudly bear its mantle. If the practice of bureaucracy could ever be elevated to high art, ENA was its apprenticeship.

How the mighty have fallen. Today its growing critics call ENA: Old-fashioned. Irrelevant. Out of touch. The French, eager to embrace the Internet age, seem to be fed up with the tradition-bound grande dame. Industry leaders have usurped the pride once reserved for the state and its servants by embracing the New Economy and, with it, new ways of thinking, working and living. Young people are heeding their call; the most desirable places to work, these days, are no longer the august bureaucracies of yore--the Finance Inspectorate or the Transport Ministry. Instead, France's hotshots are opting for private industry. Rather than the stolid, functionary training they would get at ENA, they increasingly prefer M.B.A.s--if they go to graduate school at all. "There isn't any prestige associated with the state anymore," laments Jacques Julliard, a former board member of ENA who resigned last year in protest over the school's seeming inability to change. In short, de Gaulle's august institution is sunk in a crisis of identity--possibly deep enough to challenge its very survival.

To appreciate the mess the place is in, you need look no further than the headlines: Jacques Chirac has been called to testify in court concerning kickbacks from low-cost housing projects when he was mayor of Paris. Chirac has not been charged with any crime--but it is the first time in memory that a president has been summoned as a witness in such a case. What's more, some accusers claim that he in fact orchestrated the scam. The country's scandal-weary public is inclined to dismiss the flap as little more than enarque politics, leading up to the 2002 presidential elections when Lionel Jospin and Chirac are expected to face off. But this is not the first time Chirac has been tarred by what many see as an impenetrable and elitistsystem. Former prime minister Alain Juppe, a top ENA graduate reviled for his "elitism," was ousted from office in 1997, costing Chirac the Parliament and fostering a generalized anti-ENA-ism. Juppe himself actually proposed that the school be closed, a measure that was never put to a vote. Says Michel Mangenot, of the Political Science Institute in Strasbourg, "ENA has never been threatened as seriously as it is today."

Perhaps the most serious threat comes from the private sector. Since 1982, according to a recent survey, the number of enarques going into business has doubled. The phenomenon, known as pantouflage, or "putting on slippers," has deprived the state of many of its top professional bureaucrats--along with a disproportionate chunk of its youngest would-be recruits. The crisis was highlighted last year when Finance Minister Laurent Fabius, another enarque, hired an inexperienced ENA graduate as his cabinet director after discovering that the most qualified people had all but disappeared. "It is a problem," concedes Marie-Francoise Bechtel, ENA's current director, adding that France's ministries clearly face a growing problem in finding experienced staff to fill senior posts.

Money is a big issue. Alain Demarolle, valedictorian of the class of 1993, defected to a major U.S. investment bank several years ago, partly out of frustration with the pace of government work, but also for better pay. "The best people in France don't want to work for the state anymore," he says. Top ENA graduates earn between $30,000 and $50,000 a year in government work. Next to the compensations of business, says Demarolle, there's "no comparison." ENA seems out of step with the times in other ways, too. Enrollment in the ENA preparatory program at the Paris Institute of Political Studies has dropped from 600 five years ago to only 280 today. Mangenot considers it a question of relevance. "What students are being taught at ENA isn't what's needed anymore," he says. ENA grads are perceived as lacking the skills employers are looking for, especially in the private sector. "I no longer recruit from ENA," says Frederic Lagneau, of France's oldest headhunting firm, Boyden. "They're disconnected from the reality of our clients' needs."

If anything, the students themselves are more critical. They complain that ENA's curriculum is out of touch with changes in both government and industry. Instead of courses in new technologies and human-resource management, they are peppered with classes in law and the rudiments of bureaucratic management, much of which they claim to already know. Students spend much of their time reducing 50-page dossiers to three-page summaries. "The lack of training is incredibly frustrating," says Axel Barlerin, 35, a former tennis coach who graduates this year and hopes to get a job as a judge in Nancy. "You feel like you're turning in circles here." For students who don't make it to the top of their class, the choices are often limited. Jean Guellec graduated 75th out of a class of 85 in 1993 and went on to a minor government post with meager pay. He, too, now thinks of defecting to the private sector. "It's like Plato's cave," he says of the school. "You just get stuck."

Pressures for reform are building. This year's graduating class is the first in history to petition nearly unanimously for an end to the ranking system and to call for changes in the way grads are hired for choice government jobs. Ninety-six of 103 students signed, including 28 of the top 30. For their part, school administrators insist that a slate of proposed reforms will provide students with the tools they need to become "modern bureaucrats." They tout measures designed to encourage "creativity," but so far they have refrained from modifying--let alone jettisoning--their cherished rankings. ENA director Bechtel defends the system as "bad, but the least bad of all the options." Talk about your bureaucrats. It's enough to make you think twice about becoming one.