One of the most interesting trends in France today is the publication of well-argued and insightful books about French society written by Anglo-Saxons.
I’m not talking about the steady flow of books in English that flatter all the admirable clichés about France — its cuisine, wine, fashion, culture, history. In short, the usual French savoir vivre themes that win over francophiles. I’m talking about serious critiques of how French society actually works beyond the cafe terraces. And moreover books written in French to provoke and stimulate debate in France.
One recent book in this genre is by Sophie Pedder, who is the Paris correspondent for The Economist. Her book, Le Déni français, argues that the French are “spoilt children” in denial about the ruinous costs of their Nanny State. Another is Peter Gumbel’s On achève bien les écoliers, a severe critique of the cruel culture of negativity in France’s school system. Gumbel, who was for many years Time magazine’s correspondent in Paris, has just come out with another book, this time turning his sights on French elitism and its equally woeful consequences.
Gumbel’s book has been published in French under the title Elite Academy, but this time he has also put out an English version as a Kindle ebook under the title France’s Got Talent (an allusion to the well-known British television show). It’s a fitting title because, according to Gumbel, elites in France emerge as the top picks in a rigorous, and often soul-destroying, selection process that favours the privileged from the start. Gumbel argues that, apart from the lack of merit principle, the French obsession with training elites is catastrophic for French society as a whole.
Gumbel is well-placed to assess the elite selection process in France. For the past several years he has been both a lecturer and top manager at one of France’s academic temples of elitism: Sciences Po (the familiar name of the university formally called Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris). I am a graduate of that school, and like Gumbel have been a lecturer at Sciences Po for many years. In fact we were colleagues at Sciences Po and, in his book, he refers to me as someone who encouraged him to take a job in senior management at the school. After reading his book, I somehow doubt that, retrospectively, he thinks I was giving him good advice. The experience clearly did little to enhance his professional satisfaction. At moments, from the way he describes it, it was a nightmare.
What makes France’s Got Talent so fascinating is that it’s not only a well-researched and cogently argued essay on French elitism, it’s also a personal memoir about his days on the executive team at Sciences Po. The book is an absolute must-read for anyone interested in French higher education — and in Sciences Po in particular.
Gumbel landed a top job at Sciences Po precisely at the moment the school’s reputation and charismatic leader Richard Descoings were under attack in the French media for extravagant spending and improper management practices. Gumbel was so over-stressed by the experience that, in the middle of the crisis, he privately submitted his resignation to Descoings. The saga then took an unexpected, and tragic, turn for the worse. Descoings died mysteriously in a New York hotel room only a few days before Gumbel’s resignation was to be announced. Sciences Po, one of France’s proudest and most prestigious schools, was still mired in scandal when suddenly paralyzed by shock. Looking back, Gumbel takes us inside Science Po’s executive meeting rooms and tells a story that is both fascinating and alarming. Sciences Po serves as his first-person case-study examining everything that is dysfunctional in France’s elitist administrative culture.
Gumbel’s analysis of French elitism is backed up with solid historical and statistical research. Particularly revealing is the French obsession with creating a new elite-producing school following turbulent historical ruptures — Polytechnique after the French Revolution, Sciences Po after the Franco-Prussian War, and Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) after the Second World War. The linkage between Jacobinism and the social engineering of elites is clear. Since the Third Republic, the careful selection and production of elites has been almost a national religion in France. And as Gumbel argues, its consequences have largely been disastrous.
Gumbel impressively disputes the time-honoured notion that France produces intellectually rigorous and top-performing elites, most of them technocratic servants of the state who infiltrate the upper echelons of the French private sector, especially big banks and state-controlled industries. As Gumbel demonstrates with comparative data, French elites are in fact relatively poor performers. They are very good at grabbing and keeping power inside their own closed networks, but are highly inefficient and remarkably ineffective leaders. This is not surprising, argues Gumbel, given the punishing French school system that produces these elites. When they charge out of the country’s grandes écoles such as Polytechnique and ENA to take command of the state and major French corporations, they bring with them all the detached, hierarchical, and cliquish values they learned as students. Which is why French government bureaucracies and corporations are so inbred at the top and badly managed throughout.
Gumbel’s most powerful point concerns the human cost of a society so fixated on the production of elites through a tiny number of prestigious schools like Sciences Po, ENA, and Polytechnique. He argues that the French school system is so biased in favour of selecting and training a tiny elite of leaders (most from the middle and upper-middle classes) that it tends to devalue and abandon everyone else as losers. Those who don’t make the grade — more than 95% of the population — are cast aside like Jacobine road kill. As Gumbel puts it, France’s elitist obsession creates a culture where “the French don’t feel that their talents are recognized or valued. And there is a clear cost: this culture causes pain and suffering that is too rarely acknowledged.” This may explain why the French are said to suffer from collective depression. Except the happy few at the top who have graduated from the elite schools, most of the French feel worthless. It may also explain why so many young people in France today are opting to leave the country and pursue careers in Britain and America where their talent and merit are more readily recognised and rewarded.
Gumbel’s portrait of Sciences Po as a case study of French elitism is devastating. On one hand, Gumbel credits his late boss Richard Descoings with a maverick determination to reform Sciences Po by pro-actively admitting students from underprivileged backgrounds. It is true that Descoings transformed Sciences Po, which is no longer the conservative and complacently self-important school it was when I was a student there. As Gumbel points out, Sciences Po now has so many Master’s degrees and international exchange programmes that much of the student body is non-French. On the other hand, despite Descoings’ reformist grandstanding Sciences Po has remained a bastion of elitism for French students, most of whom still come from privileged backgrounds.
Gumbel’s portrait of Descoings — and the paradox he embodied — is the most fascinating part of the book. Descoings was a pure product of the elitist system he combatted. He was raised in privilege, graduated from Sciences Po and ENA, and his career took the classic route into the upper spheres of the state bureaucracy. Enjoying solid connections in the French political establishment — especially amongst the Socialists — he was appointed head of Sciences Po at age 37. He was a passionate egalitarian in his public declarations, yet at Sciences Po his management style was detached, hierarchical, often whimsical, always autocratic. It was classic French elitism. All power was concentrated in his hands, nothing was delegated. As Gumbel notes, the entire administrative staff was constantly second-guessing what “Richard” wanted done. Which meant that nothing ever got done — until Descoings personally took a decision. This was further complicated by Descoings’ personal life, which was inseparable from his role at Sciences Po. He was homosexual and yet married a Sciences Po manager, Nadia Marik, who became his number two. Gumbel’s account of her abrasive personality and hysterical berating of top Sciences Po mangagers is so alarming that one is left wondering about Descoings’ judgement.
Those doubts are only confirmed by the media scandal about Descoings’ eye-popping emoluments and bonuses. For a champion of meritocracy, Descoings’ extravagant style and disregard for public perceptions put him squarely in the old school of French elitism. And yet Descoings lacked the inner fortitude to withstand public scrutiny. First a French government audit severely criticised mismanagement at Sciences Po; then the French press jumped in with details of Descoings’ huge pay package. When the scandal hit, Descoings fell apart and cracked up. Gumbel’s story of Descoings’ final months is fascinating and tragic. On a symbolic level, Descoings’ downfall seemed to demonstrate the profoundly undemocratic nature of French elites. So long accustomed to being protected inside their closed networks of privilege, as soon as they are exposed to criticism and pressure, they collapse. Not unlike the Ancien Regime and Second Empire.
At the end of the book Gumbel claims French elitism is being unravelled by the pressures of globalisation. As schools like Sciences Po open their doors to more and more international students, and as their French students go on study leaves abroad, the closed world of France’s inward-looking elites cannot survive. This is undoubtedly true — in the long term. But as Gumbel himself acknowledges at the beginning of the book, the death of Descoings and defeat of Nicolas Sarkozy marked a setback for egalitarianism in France. Whatever their personal defects, both Sarkozy and Descoings embodied a reformist spirit in favour of breaking down the old bastions of privilege and promoting equal opportunities in French society. Their replacements — Francois Hollande and Frédéric Mion — are by contrast pure products of the old-boy system. Both Hollande and Sciences Po’s new director Mion are graduates of Sciences Po and ENA. In fact, the French media reported that Mion’s surprise appointment to head Sciences Po — despite more obvious candidates — was orchestrated by top-level ENA-educated insiders in the Hollande power circle.
Gumbel does observe that Frédéric Mion’s appointment to the top job at Sciences Po was a triumph of old-boy networks. But he stops short of seeing in the emergence of Francois Hollande and Frédéric Mion the stubborn persistance of elitism in France — and moreover the capacity of French elites to resist change to protect their power and privileges. This is where I think Gumbel misses the point — or perhaps sidesteps it. For most of the book he builds a meticulous case against French elitism and its negative consequences. He expertly dissects the particular example of Sciences Po as an illustration of French elitism at its most eccentric and dysfunctional. He constructs the book like a prosecutor solidly building his case with irrefutable evidence. But when making his closing arguments, Gumbel suddenly has a change of heart and ends the book on a relatively indulgent and hopeful note.
Gumbel might reasonably argue that, in the long term, international and economic pressures will erode the elitist cliques that are clinging to power in France. I think he’s too optimistic, but I hope he is right.