Laurence Benhamou and Clare Byrne, Agence France-Presse, February 11, 2021
President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday announced a plan to make France’s ruling class more diverse by creating dedicated places for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds at the elite ENA college that has groomed generations of French leaders.
Macron has repeatedly complained that France’s social elevator is stuck, and that young people from low-income families, particularly children of African or Arab immigrants, have no route out of the grim high-rise housing estates where they grow up.
On Thursday, he unveiled a “Talents” programme that will reserve six places at the Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the Strasbourg-based finishing school for senior civil servants, for students from poorer backgrounds.
Four other prestigious colleges will also be involved in the programme, which aims to level the playing field for students whose education prospects have suffered by dint of where they grow up.
While many countries have similar programmes to counter inequality, in France, affirmative action or “positive discrimination” was long dismissed as running counter to the idea of a meritocracy.
The move to diversify the student body of the colleges that produce France’s elites marks an about-turn for the centrist Macron, who had at one point vowed to scrap ENA, seen as a symbol of French elitism.
He said Thursday that 1,000 places would be created in two new programmes to prepare students from disadvantaged backgrounds for applying to France’s top colleges.
ENA graduates, known as enarques, form a network of influence that stretches across the top echelons of politics and business, making it a target for critics of the French establishment for decades.