Liberté! Égalité! Overcrowded, Underfunded Universities!

Can Emmanuel Macron save France's higher education system by making it more American?

A woman holds the book of Emmanuel Macron, head of "En Marche" political movement and presidential candidate, during a book signing session in a library in Bordeaux, on December 13, 2016. (NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman holds the book of Emmanuel Macron, head of "En Marche" political movement and presidential candidate, during a book signing session in a library in Bordeaux, on December 13, 2016. (NICOLAS TUCAT/AFP/Getty Images)

Since 1789, France has been the battleground for les guerres franco-françaises—a phrase that refers to the string of ideological and political wars that have riven France. Monarchy versus republic or religion versus reason, the right versus left or Paris versus France: Regardless of the particular opposition, it is inevitably fueled by the ideological legacy of the French Revolution.

Over the past few months, a sparring match between two academic behemoths has given a paradoxical twist to these wars. In one corner is the upstart grande école, weighing in at a couple of centuries; in the other corner is the heavyweight université, weighing in at more than half a millennium. Surprisingly, the university system, despite its medieval lineage, turns out to be more egalitarian, while the grandes écoles, the offspring of 1789, have become more aristocratic. The dispute between them has culminated in a recent attempt by President Emmanuel Macron to both recognize and reconcile the antagonists. In his own way, Macron—though a brilliant product of the uniquely French grandes écoles—is seeking to use France’s higher education system as a vehicle to remake the country in his own, slightly more American self-image.

The French mostly either bemoan or boast of their dual system of higher education. Universities constitute the older half; the Sorbonne, which became a magnet for students across Europe, was founded in the 13th century. As the French state, based in Paris, extended its rule over the centuries, so too did it establish additional universities. There are now 85 universities across France that, at least in principle, guarantee open admission. All an applicant requires is the baccalauréat, France’s equivalent of the high school diploma won upon passing a battery of exams in the final year of lycée. The difficulty in obtaining the diploma, colloquially known as the bac or bachot, effectively served as a means of selection.

But the French lycées are no more exempt from grade inflation than are our own high schools. Once a dreaded event that few passed and fewer surpassed, the bac has become a mere formality. In 2017, nearly 90 percent of lycée students passed the final exams. The universities, straining since the 1960s to accommodate, much less educate, their students, are now overwhelmed. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of university students doubled, from 1.2 million to 2.3 million, and the crisis seems to have reached critical mass.

Compounding the crisis was the government’s effort earlier this year to introduce the shadow, but not the substance, of selective admissions. With dreary predictability, the students at a dozen campuses went on strike. Buildings were occupied, speeches were declaimed, and walls were covered in graffiti. But as Karl Marx said of the revolutionaries of 1848, history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce. The strikers were few, while the many were those students who simply wanted to take their exams. The latter aimed their frustration, as a consequence, not at the administration as much as at their fellow students who blocked access to the classrooms. Once university students do take their exams and receive their diplomas, the future nevertheless remains grim. Few employers are waiting to hire those with degrees, especially in the humanities and social sciences, which has led French university students to be the least optimistic among all of their European peers.

This life of not so quiet desperation is mostly unknown to students at the grandes écoles. Home to 10 percent of French students, there are more than 450 grandes écoles, focusing mostly on engineering and management. While these schools, in principle, are all grand, some are grander than others. The most celebrated are the engineering schools Polytechnique and Centrale, HEC (École des hautes études commerciales), ENA (École nationale d’administration), and ENS (École normale supérieure), which, as the school that mostly trains professors in the humanities and social sciences, is something of an outlier. Tellingly, all of these schools are located in Paris, and the two oldest—Polytechnique and ENS—trace their origins to the French Revolution, which stood in dire need of engineers and teachers to secure the foundations of the newly founded First Republic. (For similar reasons, Charles de Gaulle, as head of France’s provisional government, created the ENA in 1945 to provide the soon-to-be Fourth Republic with administrators untainted by the occupation.)

While most of the grandes écoles are public, they resemble America’s Ivy League schools in a number of respects. They are extremely selective—indeed, so selective that they require two years of post-bac work at preparatory schools that, in turn, can also be very selective. As is the case with the Ivies, once accepted into a grande école, it requires a strenuous effort to fail out. Finally, the reserve of cultural and social capital at the grandes écoles is nearly bottomless. In his study of these schools, the renowned sociologist Pierre Bourdieu described their graduates as “la noblesse d’État”—an administrative aristocracy that, behind the veneer of republican meritocracy, represents less a rupture than a continuation with the old regime.

It is, moreover, a meritocracy that finds greater merit in those born to the manor than those benighted souls born without it. In 2014, a study revealed that more than 60 percent of students admitted to Polytechnique came from families already established in this professional milieu, while just over 1 percent were offspring of working-class families.

Not surprisingly, many accuse Polytechnique of sparking the current dust-up in the groves of French academe. One of former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s major projects, for which posterity would ostensibly thank him, was the creation of what he called “Cambridge à la française.” Overseen by the state, this mega-university would be built from scratch at Saclay, a plateau that sits just south of Paris. Announced in 2010, Sarkozy’s goal was to place the nation’s most prestigious universities and grandes écoles on the same plot of land and under a single administrative roof, with the explicit research missions of the former and the highly selective admissions standards of the latter. Their combined intellectual and scientific brilliance, he believed, would rocket France to the top of the various rankings for the world’s best institutions of higher learning.

Sarkozy’s vision seemed an oblique response to 2010’s international Shanghai survey of universities, in which only two French universities made it into the top 50. The grandes écoles fared even worse: The ENS was ranked 71st, while Polytechnique, falling outside the bar of the top 200, barely rated a mention. Echoing Georges Danton’s famous exhortation during the revolution, Sarkozy declared all that was needed was “audacity” to close the gap.

Mere audacity, alas, could not bridge the cultural and administrative chasm between the worlds of the universities and grandes écoles. The universities feared the arrival of the allegedly narrow, conformist admissions and educational culture of the grand écoles. The grand écoles, meanwhile, jealously guarded their privileges: far better-funded faculties and facilities, and deep networks for professors and students at the highest rungs of the public and private sectors. Sarkozy, for his part, lacked the attention span to determine precisely which aspects of which institutions would prevail over the other.

As a result, Saclay has remained ever since Sarkozy’s announcement a mostly abandoned worksite, while the leading players have circled suspiciously around one another, unwilling to surrender their autonomy and unable to see beyond their own institutional privileges. The most intransigent institution has been Polytechnique. As one observer acidly noted, “L’X [the popular name for the school] has always thought that it is the best school not just in France, but also in Europe and the world.”

The conviction of l’X that it is an institution pas comme les autres is reflected in its traditional role during Bastille Day celebrations. Ever since the late 19th century, they are the one institution of higher learning—if you leave aside the military academy Saint Cyr—that marches in the military parade. Resplendent in uniforms that seem inspired by the British naval officers from Pirates of the Caribbean—blue-gray double-breasted uniforms and gold-trimmed horned hats—the students march under an ornate school flag emblazoned with the words “Pour la patrie, pour les sciences, pour la gloire.”

To that motto, Michel Crozier might have added: “Pour la fraternité.” The late and great French sociologist famously diagnosed France as a “blocked society.” By this term, Crozier argued that the nation’s institutions were frozen in authoritarian configurations, leaving little room for individual initiative and innovation. Staggering under the hoary tradition of dirigisme—which dictates that while individuals propose, the state disposes—the French were unwilling, Crozier declared, to take the “risk of freedom” by reforming and decentralizing their institutions. As the title of one of his books insisted, French society cannot be changed by decree.

But this hasn’t stopped the French state, or more precisely Emmanuel Macron, from trying. Though a graduate of two different grandes écoles, the ENA and Sciences Po, he has tried to fuse American entrepreneurialism to classical French liberalism. Late last year, Macron recognized that France’s educational institutions needed change: “Whenever we expend too much energy on these internal wars, we hit the brake on history as it is accelerating. While some of the institutions have cooperated, others have shown their resistance.” But the president has also acknowledged that change would only come by working together with the existing institutions and respecting their peculiarities.

Rebaptizing Sarkozy’s project as “MIT à la française,” Macron announced that the government would oversee the creation of not one, but instead two mega-universities. Dubbing one the Université Paris-Saclay, he declared that it would combine several universities, including Paris-Sud, along with a few grandes écoles. The other, given the (fortunately) temporary name of NewUni, will be dominated by grandes écoles, including Polytechnique, and led by Jean-Lou Chameau, a Frenchman who had nevertheless served for several years as president of the California Institute of Technology. Though the details have yet to be worked out, the hope seems to be that the two institutions will serve as a laboratory experiment, with each given a chance to flourish according to different educational and institutional norms.

Sarkozy’s audacity is out, along with state-commanded centralization. Macron’s recipe, combining several pinches of pragmatism with a dash of dirigisme—is an instance of what has been called “decentralized dirigisme.” An expert in international relations, Vivien Schmidt, has argued that such a policy, which devolves power from the state to smaller administrative entities, has worked at the regional level in France. In principle, this same hybrid approach can also be used to seed the decaying groves of French academe. The Shanghai rankings serve as a reminder that France cannot risk not taking this risk. As Macron declared, “it is no longer possible to turn back,” nor is it possible to go forward without the state to “consolidate, clarify, and multiply each of their steps.” In sum, l’État est mort. Vive l’État!

Correction, July 31, 2018: The preparatory work required to enter the grandes écoles can be completed at both public and private schools. A previous version of this article misstated that fact.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of a forthcoming book on Simone Weil.


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