In France, elite schools wield power

December 25, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- Even as the fires smoldered in France's working-class suburbs and paramilitary police officers patrolled Paris to guard against attacks by angry minority youths last month, dozens of young men and women dressed in elaborate, old-fashioned parade uniforms marched down the Champs-Elysees to commemorate Armistice Day.

They were students of the grandes ecoles, the premier institutions of higher education here, from which the upper echelons of French society draw new blood. Few minority students were among them.

Nothing represents the stratification of French society more than the country's rigid educational system, which has reinforced the segregation of disadvantaged second-generation immigrant youths by effectively locking them out of the corridors of power.

While French universities are open to all high school graduates, the grandes ecoles - great schools - from which many of the country's leaders emerge, weed out anyone who does not fit a finely honed mold. Of the 350,000 students graduating annually from French high schools, the top few grandes ecoles accept only about 1,000, virtually all of whom come from a handful of elite preparatory schools.

Most of the country's political leaders, on both the right and the left, come from the grandes ecoles. President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, studied at the National School of Administration, which has produced most of the technocrats who have run France for the past 30 years. Two opposition leaders, Francois Hollande and Laurent Fabius, did, too.

"It's as if in the U.S., 80 percent of the heads of major corporations or top government officials came from Harvard Law School," said Francois Dubet, a sociologist at the University of Bordeaux.

These schools - officially there are 200 but only a half dozen are the most powerful - have their roots in the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire. Just as the SATs were meant to give all American students an equal shot at top universities, the examination-based grandes ecoles were developed to give the bourgeoisie a means of rising in a society dominated by the aristocracy.

It worked for nearly two centuries. Throughout the 19th century, French administrations drew establishment cadres from the loyal ranks of the grandes ecoles, avoiding the universities, which, outside the control of the government establishment, they saw as potential pools of dissent.

Even in the 20th century, the merit-based system allowed young people from modest backgrounds to move up into the corridors of power.

But children of blue-collar workers, who made up as much as 20 percent of the student body of the top grandes ecoles 30 years ago, make up, at best, 2 percent today. Few are minority students.

In the 1950s, only a small proportion of French students pursued higher education, leaving room for a slice of the working classes to get into the schools, said Vincent Tiberj, a sociologist who studies social inequalities in France. Since then, the number of candidates for the schools has expanded far faster than the schools themselves.

At the same time, the channels leading into the schools have narrowed: the vast majority of students entering the grandes ecoles today come from special two-year preparatory schools, which draw their students primarily from high schools in the country's wealthiest neighborhoods.

"The top five or six grandes ecoles recruit students from fewer than 50 high schools across France," said Richard Descoings, director of the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies, better known as Sciences Po.

Administrators at the grandes ecoles say students who do not follow the focused, specialized curriculum of the preparatory schools have almost no chance of being accepted. And while, theoretically, top students from any high school in the country can apply for the preparatory schools, the system has become so rarefied that few people from working-class neighborhoods are even aware that the opportunity exists.

"There's a lack of information, no one talked to us about the preparatory schools," said Alexis Blasselle, 20, the daughter of working-class parents and now a student at the exclusive Ecole Polytechnique. She learned of the preparatory schools by chance the summer after graduating from high school. "The solution isn't to open up another avenue to get into the grandes ecoles, but to make people aware of the possibility."

Sciences Po (pronounced see-ahns po), alone among the elite schools, has opened a new avenue of entry for students. High schools from disadvantaged neighborhoods nominate students, and Sciences Po then gives them oral examinations for intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. This year, 50 students were admitted through the program, while 200 entered through the normal examination process.

The Conference of Grandes Ecoles, an association of the 200 schools, has also started a program that reaches out to top students in working-class neighborhoods to help guide them through their high school years and better their chances of getting into a preparatory school.

But the top half-dozen grandes ecoles, those that provide the country's leaders in politics and business, remain more or less closed.

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