Emmanuel Macron, Be True to Your School

Decades ago, the Beach Boys urged their audiences to “be true to your school.” Emmanuel Macron is committing the ultimate act of disloyalty to his school: he’s trying to shut it down!

Now I hope I’ve caught your attention for what may seem like public administration inside baseball. President Macron last week announced his intention to abolish the “Ecole Nationale d’Administration,” the French government’s graduate program in public administration, in which he was once a student, or in French slang, an “enarque.” As were Francois Hollande, Jacques Chirac, and Valery Giscard d’Estaing. In response to the “Gilets Jaunes” movement, Macron has decided to shutter a prestigious academic institution which he now, some years after graduating, sees as closed, inward-looking, and elitist.

Patrick Gerard, the Director of ENA, has responded with a combative column in the newspaper Le Figaro, also posted on ENA’s website, rebutting those charges. He claims that the evidence shows that the students are more experienced, more diverse, more socially conscious, and more engaged than the stereotype Macron is promulgating.

Though not on the scene in the political and academic salons of Paris in which this demarche is being debated, here are my observations from afar. This looks like an exercise in symbolic politics on Macron’s part. Respond to the populists by closing down an elitist institution, so much the better if it is one in which you were a student.

What does ENA do? Its flagship program is a two-year Master’s which receives thousands of applications for a class of approximately 100. The program includes theoretical and practical training, and graduates are recruited into the upper ranks of the French civil service. A small percentage – 2.5 percent, according to Gerard’s article – leave the public service for political careers, but most of the rest are career public servants. ENA also has programs for public servants from outside France, mid-career programs for French and overseas public servants, joint masters programs with a number of universities, and short-term tailor-made executive education programs. The programs are offered at campuses in both Strasbourg and Paris.

If ENA were taken out of the picture, the demand for the programs it offers would not disappear. Applicants to ENA would apply to other graduate programs in public administration. And existing programs might expand to fill the void. The “Institute d’Etudes Politique de Paris,” colloquially referred to as the “Sciences Po” in French, is a major feeder school of undergraduates applying to ENA. The “Sciences Po” could launch a master’s program like ENA’s flagship program. Or perhaps the Harvard Kennedy School could start a Paris program, with classes both in Paris and in Cambridge.

I find it implausible, even absurd, the French Government would want to withdraw from graduate and executive education for senior public servants. Most other governments that I know of have both executive education programs for mid-career public servants and elite recruitment programs. The Government of Canada has the Canada School of Public Service for mid-career education and has a number of elite recruitment programs, the most prestigious of which is the Recruitment of Policy Leaders (RPL) program. The federal government doesn’t run its own master’s program but RPL at least provides mentoring, career development, and networking opportunities for its participants and alumni.

In my view, executive education and elite recruitment are two important functions for any modern public service. Shutting them down will diminish a country’s capacity for governance. Doing it for purely symbolic reasons, as appears to be the case in France, is shameful. Yes, alternatives to ENA might emerge, but why rely on alternatives when there is already a strong institution in place? If there are problems with ENA, for example its accessibility to students of modest means located outside major cities, it would be better to solve the problems than destroy the institution entirely.

President Macron, be true to your school.

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