A tale of two elites

The news that President Macron of France has confirmed the closure of his country’s elite school for leading administrators, the École nationale d’administration (ENA, in English the National School of Administration) may not have been the first thing on people’s minds this week, certainly not for those of our readers in the UK.  In a week when HRH Prince Philip has died, just 2 months short of his 100th birthday, and on the very day when, in England at least, the latest relaxations of the social distancing restrictions take place, it might seem an odd thing for us to choose to write about.

But for all that most people will be thinking about taking advantage of the pubs re-opening (and most of the rest about that long-awaited trip to the hairdressers), the news from Paris is not without importance, both for what it says about France and the position of the Énarques (as ENA graduates and alumni are known) in French society, and by analogy for what inferences we might draw about the UK.  For both countries have a real problem with an entrenched elite, and while people in Britain may look at Macron and the mote in France’s eye with a mixture of amusement and disdain, they overlook rather too easily the beam in the UK’s eye.

To recap very briefly, Macron and France faced a significant populist uprising two years ago, as the so-called “gilets jaunes” protested about the state of France, the control of the metropolitan elite and much else besides[1].  One of their main targets was the ENA, and the way that the Énarques have in recent decades dominated all parts of French officialdom, supplying a very high proportion of senior civil servants, politicians and heads of government agencies.  More than half France’s presidents since the 1960s have been graduates of the ENA (including Macron himself), and no less than 8 of its recent prime ministers.

Macron’s response in 2019 was to promise to abolish the ENA.  Many then thought this an empty promise to buy peace with the masses, and that as things quietened down he would suggest some reform of the school that stopped short of outright closure.  But this week he confirmed that “abolition means abolition” – the ENA would be closed completely, and replaced with a new, and of course much more open and meritocratic, school to be called the “Institut du service public” (ISP, in English the Institute for Public Service).

We think this says something about Macron, and also something about France.  And perhaps, it should cause our UK readers to think about one aspect of their own country as well.

The first thing to say about Macron is that he has clearly, and probably correctly, judged that his political position is not such that he can simply ignore his promise two years ago to “do something” about the ENA.  He knows he faces a very difficult election in early 2022, which he is by no means guaranteed to win, and he senses that he cannot renege on his promise to the gilets jaunes, most of whom would normally support him and whose votes he dare not forfeit.  In this instance, he is in the unusual position for a politician of risking more by not fulfilling his pledge made in the heat of the moment than by carrying through with it.

We suspect Macron realises (as perhaps only an alumnus of the school can) that the problem of the ENA, or more specifically the attitude in the French establishment that for every leading political or administrative position “we need an Énarque for this”, does need addressing.  It has clearly not arisen overnight, but Macron’s predecessors have all ducked the challenge and he deserves credit for taking on the task of doing something about it.  It is never easy to change the way the establishment does things, and dismantling the power system by which the elite maintain their position is very very difficult.

On the other hand, Macron’s proposed solution is both an admission of impotence (“I cannot mend the ENA; all I can do therefore is abolish it”), and unlikely to have any effect (because the elite will simply colonise the ISP, the ENA’s replacement).  It is not difficult to see graduates and alumni of the ISP ending up monopolising the power positions in France in exactly the same way that Énarques do now.

And this is because at a deeper level, this is not about Macron, or even about the ENA, but about France.  The fact that too many positions, too much power, is in the hands of Énarques is partly because too much power in France is in too few hands full stop.

This is hardly a new criticism of France:  many have observed that it is a highly centralised country, with too much power at the centre and too much of the centre in too few hands.  It has been thus ever since the French Revolution, when Napoleon set up a highly centralised state with all power and control at the centre, as a direct contrast to and response to the decentralised, chaotic and dysfunctional Ancien Régime.

To be fair to Napoleon, by the late 18th century France was ungovernable:  the king had little power and even less taxation rights, as successive monarchs had granted the nobility freedom from taxation and much else besides in return for gifts and loans of money – a terrible bargain for the Crown, as they gave away power and taxation rights in perpetuity for a one-off and limited financial bequest[2].  And Napoleon’s background as an artillery officer would have given him a strong belief in central control – it is a fact that artillery fire is much more effective when concentrated, co‑ordinated and under one command.

But it has created a country which to this day allows a central and relatively small elite to exercise control in a way that, for example, no single group, no single entity can ever hope to control all the levers of power in Germany, a much more decentralised country.  And also a country that allows the ENA to dominate that elite and so dominate power in France in an extraordinary way for an institution which was only founded in 1945.

(It has also, in passing, led to a belief in France that there is a right way to do things – and by implication that other ways are wrong.  This leads naturally to bodies to act as the guardians of the true way and the arbiters of what is allowed and what is not: the classic example is the Académie Française, who police the evolution of the French language in a highly dirigiste way.  Which in turn reinforces the opportunity for small groups – self-appointed or otherwise – to dominate, direct and control society).

What about the read-across to the UK?  France and the UK are the yin and the yang of Europe, with much more in common than either would like to admit:  they are about the same size as each other, by far the oldest large nation states of the continent, and long term rivals (and often outright enemies).  They both have highly centralised states, and memories of colonial grandeur and empire that neither can fully escape.  And while Britain has nothing approaching the Académie Française – the idea of a similar body to police the way the English language is used and develops is unimaginable – they do both have a deeply entrenched elite.

In Britain’s case the most visible form of the elite is the House of Lords.  To many in the country, the idea of a legislature appointed (not elected, but appointed) for life is deeply troubling and a stain on the UK’s democratic credentials;  to most people observing the UK from outside it is absurd and simply laughable.

We sense this might offend some of our more conservative (small-C) readers, but allow us to highlight just four current members of the House of Lords to illustrate the concerns.  Firstly we have Lord Botham – Beefy to his many admirers.  One of the greatest cricketers of his generation, he acquired his nickname Beefy and the adoration of millions for his stunning achievements on the cricket pitch; he was subsequently knighted for his huge charitable works (and rightly so);  and he was then made a life peer on the basis that he was a friend of the Prime Minister and happened to support Brexit.  It is questionable as to whether this last is quite sufficient to justify him being made a legislator for life.

Or there is Zac Goldsmith, Baron Goldsmith of Richmond Park.  Until 2019 he was Mr Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park, until the electors of that constituency (full disclosure, I am one of them) voted him out of office.  What does it say about British democracy when voters can throw someone out of one of the two houses of Parliament, only to find that because he is a friend of the Prime Minister and a Brexit supporter (there is a theme here), he re‑emerges into the other house and continues to be part of the legislature that makes our laws?

What about Arthur Wellesley, better known as the 9th Duke of Wellington?  Because his ancestor won a battle just over 200 years ago, he too is a legislator, though at least in his case he has to be elected … by his fellow hereditary peers.  Not a very large electorate, but he is at least elected by someone.

And finally, we have all the people the government would like to make ministers, often for admirable reasons, only to find they are not MPs.  Without in any way meaning to criticise her in person, an example drawn from many possible is Baroness Altmann.  A deep thinker on pension issues and doughty campaigner for pension reform for many years, she was made a life peer in 2015 so that she could be a minister for pensions.   She lasted in that position for just 14 months before resigning, but remains a baroness and so legislator for life.

Most people who look at the UK political system seriously and with an open mind realise that the House of Lords is indefensible.  But a combination of reform being too difficult, plus most alternatives being worse, mean that successive prime ministers have drawn back from serious reform – even Tony Blair, who had a real go at modernising it, stopped his reforms half way.  And it is undeniably useful for a prime minister to be able to dangle the promise of a peerage in front of people when he needs their support.

But perhaps the current fractured state of the United Kingdom offers an opportunity.  The renewed drive north of the Border for Scottish independence needs to be met by bold gestures, and the idea of creating a second chamber which is genuinely federal, and in which the three smaller nations in the UK (the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish) have a genuine chance of being heard, might be one way not to dismantle the Union but to preserve it.

Such a move would be bold, and perhaps only a Conservative (and very English) prime minister like Boris Johnson could carry it off.  Just as only an Énarque like Macron can hope to solve France’s problem of Énarquism.


[1]              The “gilets jaunes” (ie “yellow vests”) was the umbrella name given to a general protest movement that has caused much disruption in France from late 2018 onwards.  Some estimates suggest that as many as 3 million people may have taken part in the protests over the last 2½ years;  ironically many are Macron supporters, and their main contention is that once in office he has not delivered on his populist agenda fast enough.  The gilets jaunes liken themselves to that other sartorially-named protest movement the “sans culottes” or “without breeches”, a term used for the protesting masses in the late 18th century that provided the impetus for the French Revolution.

[2]              This had reached the extent by 1770 that the King of France had unchallenged control of less of France than his Capetian predecessors had had in the Middle Ages.  Instead the country consisted of tens of semi-independent principalities – it is said that when Voltaire rode from Paris to his house in Ferney-Voltaire to escape trouble in the capital, a distance of about 300 miles, he crossed no less than 19 of them.