The Fall of the French Ruling Class?


The Fall of the French Ruling Class?

Hugo Drochon
CAMBRIDGE – How did it come to this? That is what much of the world, and certainly almost all of the French elite, is asking ahead of the second round of France’s presidential election. Charles de Gaulle included the runoff in the constitution of the Fifth Republic to force the French to choose responsibly – something he was never certain they would do unless pushed. And yet the choice this year still came down to Marine Le Pen, heir to the ugliest of all French traditions – that of collaborationist Vichy France – and the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who has never held elective office and was only briefly a government minister.

Some blame France’s sclerotic economy for voters’ rebellion against the establishment candidates. Others blame the European Union for its seeming aloofness and incompetence. But the French elite, perhaps one of the most cosseted and cloistered of any Western elite nowadays, bears its share of responsibility, too.

A Gallic Formation

If the United Kingdom has PPE (or philosophy, politics, and economics), the Oxford “degree that runs Britain,” as The Guardian recently put it, the French, too, are governed largely by three letters: ENA. Just as PPE unites British prime ministers such as Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and David Cameron, as well as opposition leaders like Hugh Gaitskell and Ed Miliband, the École nationale d’administration appears on the résumés of French Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, and François Hollande; Prime Ministers Édouard Balladur, Michel Rocard, Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé, Laurent Fabius, and Dominique de Villepin; and senior politicians such as Ségolène Royale and Macron himself.
There are, in fact, striking parallels between PPE and the ENA. Both had radical beginnings, rooted in a desire to break with the past. When PPE, the older of the two, was founded at the University of Oxford in 1921, the idea was to offer a new and exciting course that transcended staid disciplinary boundaries.
The aim of the ENA, founded in the broken and dispirited France of 1945, was to train an elite class of administrators who would lead the country’s post-war reconstruction. By centralizing the exams that metered entry into the French bureaucracy’s higher echelons, the ENA was seen as a sharp break with the nepotism relied upon to select elites previously. Meritocracy would democratize access.
Both PPE and the ENA were attempts to improve government, but both have become synonymous with an elitist, technocratic method of rule that has lost touch with citizens’ interests and demands. The criticisms leveled at both institutions are remarkably similar: the broad range of subjects studied encourages a superficial, dilettantish acquaintance with many topics, and a glib numeracy, but in-depth knowledge of nothing.
Moreover, the pressures of the curriculum mean that last-minute cramming and improvisation are the norm. Informed, creative thinking soon gives way to intellectual conformity. And all of this feeds the sense that both PPE and the ENA simply reproduce the elites who came before – that, ultimately, their role is to cement and dignify their respective societies’ power structures.
This is not to imply that PPE and the ENA have been the preserve of conservative politicians. In the UK, Tony Blair’s government was heavily dominated by PPE graduates, and Labour, when in power, has often been depicted as “the governing wing of the PPE course.” In France, both François Mitterrand and Hollande filled their governments with énarques, as ENA graduates are known. When Hollande won the Socialist Party’s primary in 2011, he defeated fellow énarque Martine Aubry in the second round.
Competition between énarques has not, of course, been limited to Socialists. The 2002 presidential election, in which Marine Le Pen’s father and National Front founder Jean-Marie made it through to the second round for the first time in the party’s history, originally seemed likely to pit the Socialist énarque Jospin against the conservative énarque Chirac. In any case, the énarque won: Chirac went on to crush Le Pen, winning more than 80% of the vote – a landslide that this year’s énarque, Macron, is unlikely to replicate.

The Elite’s Elite

To comprehend the ENA’s impact on recent generations of French politics, consider this: since the 1960s, between a third and one-half of the cabinet have been énarques, even though only 1% of énarques pursue political careers. The vast majority work in the state administration, in line with the school’s original mission. Some move on to international careers: both Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, and Jean-Claude Trichet, the former president of the European Central Bank, are graduates.
Moreover, énarques occupy the commanding heights of French business – where, according to a recent study by the school, around 22% end up. They have led, or currently are leading, all of the largest French companies – Air France, BNP, Renault, Carrefour, AXA, the SNCF, Orange, and the FNAC, to name just a few. They glide effortlessly from administration to business – and back again – in what the French call pantouflage, the equivalent of the United States’ “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington.
Unlike Oxford’s PPE, the ENA does not produce journalists, although its students will often be familiar with them, having studied together previously at Sciences Po – another of France’s elite Grandes Écoles. This highlights another important difference between PPE and the ENA: the former is an undergraduate degree, the latter a master’s. Classes at the ENA are therefore much smaller. In 2016, PPE had 280 places for a three-year course. The ENA accepts between 80-100 students a year for its two-year program – a number that has been decreasing since the early 2000s, when it was over 150. And yet, despite such small class sizes, the énarques comprise an extraordinarily disproportionate share of France’s senior politicians, civil servants, and businesspeople. What the ENA produces, in short, is the French ruling class.

The Rules of a Ruling Class

It was not Karl Marx, but the Sicilian politician and political theorist Gaetano Mosca, who coined the term “ruling class.” In his pioneering 1896 book Elementi di Scienza Politica, Mosca rejected Aristotle’s classification of regimes as monarchies, aristocracies, or democracies. Mosca’s thesis was that, throughout history, humankind has always been ruled by a small minority. He deduced this from his study of history and political science, which he claimed had started to accumulate sufficient knowledge for us to be able to identify immutable historical laws. The historical law Mosca identified from his study was the permanence of a ruling class.
If Mosca’s vision of politics was meant to be global and trans-historical, his direct experience of democracy was quite specific, coming after the struggle for Italian unification known as the Risorgimento. The democracy that resulted from that struggle was very imperfect, with a small – though expanding – suffrage.
Trasformismo, the system of rule put in place by Italy’s new middle-class “professional” men of power, after they replaced the high-minded liberal aristocrats who had fought for unification, was based on left-right coalitions to keep the extremes at bay. But the system degenerated into a generalized system of bribery, clientelism, and patronage, with deputies interested only in their own enrichment. Long-term principles were sacrificed for short-term gain, economic policies failed to help the poor, literacy remained low, and sanitary conditions were as bad as before unification.
In these circumstances, it should come as no surprise that Mosca took a dim view of “democracy,” by which he meant the direct influence of the “people,” through their politicians, on all aspects of running the state. And yet he remained a defender of representative government, as became clear in 1923, when he published the second edition of Elementi di Scienza Politica (which was twice as long as the first).
In the second edition, Mosca advanced his notion of “juridical defense”: the legal separation of powers. Mosca believed that civilizations were driven by the development of “social forces”: all human institutions – whether money, land ownership, religion, education, or science – that had social significance. “Democracy” was a new social force, but Mosca worried that it would come to dominate all others and become tyrannical: civilizations were judged, he believed, according to how many social forces they could keep in harmony. Representative government, based on a liberal and pluralistic separation of power, was thus optimal, as it could accommodate the greatest number of social forces, whether legal, social, economic, administrative, or military.
Obviously, Mosca’s theory of liberal government, anchored in the stable bedrock of an impersonal system of law, was deeply shaken by what was to come in Italy. In his final speech in the Italian Senate, Mosca denounced Benito Mussolini – and then promptly retired.

After Virtue

One might usefully wonder what Mosca would make of the French Fifth Republic. De Gaulle was famous for paying for his own stamps while he was president. But the regime he established has been mired in corruption for decades. There was the Bokassa diamonds affair under Giscard d’Estaing; the Paris featherbedding scandal under Chirac and Juppé; the Clearstream tax-evasion affair surrounding Villepin, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn; and the Bygmalion communication agency fraud organized by Jean-François Copé, another énarque, to finance Sarkozy’s successful campaign (another helping hand, to the tune of €50 million, came from Libya’s then-leader, Muammar el-Qaddafi).
All of these episodes preceded the current election campaign’s “Penelopegate,” in which one of the early frontrunners, the right-wing François Fillon, is accused of misappropriating up to €1 million in public funds to pay his wife for a nonexistent parliamentary job. Fillon’s troubles dragged on, sapping his campaign. Every week, a new scandal erupted. There were watches and suits, the hiring of his unqualified children as lawyers, kickbacks for meetings between business leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and checks from a secret government fund that were not intended for him.
And Fillon is not the only candidate in this year’s election tainted by corruption charges. Le Pen is facing a double whammy: At the EU level, she faces her own featherbedding scandal concerning her parliamentary assistant, for which the entire National Front is on the hook for €5 million. At the national level, Le Pen is accused of having misused state funds to finance her election campaigns dating back to 2011 (not to mention the millions she has received from Russia through now-defunct banks).

L’État, c’est nous

We’ve heard it all before. France’s semi-presidential Fifth Republic is often characterized as being monarchical in more ways than one: not just for its centralization and powerful executive, but also for having retained the corruption and favoritism that characterized the Ancien Régime. Much like Louis XIV, the “Sun King,” who famously declared l’État, c’est moi, French politicians regard the state as theirs to dispose of as they will. The énarques’ outsize role in French politics, and their close links to the civil service and the business world, has no doubt exacerbated this sense of entitlement: the state is ours. It is a sense that is hard to miss in the country’s largest scandals.
But one does not have to be an énarque to behave like a Bourbon. Sarkozy, Fillon, and Le Pen all studied law. Indeed, Sarkozy’s cabinet was the first to include only one énarque, Valérie Pécresse, the higher-education minister (Hollande restored the seemingly natural order of things by filling his government with ENA graduates, including Macron). So the revolution, if there is to be one, won’t come from here.
Instead, it may come from the two professions that have historically been excluded from the ENA: journalists and lawyers (the vast majority of whom have not, unlike Sarkozy, Fillon and Le Pen, pursued a political career). The highly respected satirical weekly Le Canard enchaîné has long been at the forefront of investigative journalism in France, including breaking the scandals surrounding Bokassa’s diamonds and Chirac’s Parisian affaires. But its role in revealing Fillon’s scandals has been unprecedented – and it has been joined by new media organizations such as Médiapart.
Likewise, with the Hollande government reinforcing the independence of the judiciary, along with its investigative powers, lawyers have been leading the charge in bringing corrupt politicians to court. Both Fillon and his wife, the eponymous Penelope, are under criminal investigation, and a formal demand to revoke Le Pen’s immunity as a member of the European Parliament has been submitted.

An Elite Purge?

All of this, of course, would not have been possible without a change in mœurs: the French public are fed up with the old customs and practices – including the hiring of family members as assistants, which in fact is perfectly legal – and they want change. If the swamp is to be drained, it will be the work of three social forces, to use Mosca’s terms: a rejuvenated journalism, an empowered judiciary, and a change in morality.
The great irony is that the person anointed to effect this change, Macron, is a pure product of the system: an énarque who worked for Rothschild & Cie Banque, before becoming an unelected minister under Hollande. This has left him vulnerable to attack from the National Front, including the anti-Semitic tropes from which Le Pen has supposedly been trying to distance her party.
Moreover, it is still not clear how well Macron’s candidacy is playing out on the left: Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the Socialist Party, after having accused Macron in an early presidential debate of representing the “party of money,” has endorsed him with the same commitment to the “Republican Front” with which Jospin endorsed Chirac in 2002. But Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the ex-Trotskyite who finished just behind Fillon in the election’s first round, with almost 20% of the vote, has refused to back Macron (though one poll suggests that Mélenchon’s voters are significantly more likely than Fillon’s to support him, with Fillon’s shifting decisively to Le Pen).
Macron has vowed that, if he comes to power, half his cabinet will come from civil society. And he has pledged the same for the legislative elections in June. While that may not amount to the “revolution” his campaign has promised, far-reaching turnover at the top could create the impetus for reform that the Fifth Republic has long lacked and so desperately needs. The real revolutionaries – Le Pen and the reactionary right – are hoping that Macron fails. But what they have in mind could hardly be called progress.

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