woods38_THOMAS WIRTHAFP via Getty Images_ena THOMAS WIRTH/AFP via Getty Images

Building a New Elite

Like many countries, France faces the challenge of building a public administration ambitious enough to attract people of purpose and talent, but also open enough to recruit from a much wider cross-section of society. Tinkering with the prestigious École Nationale d’Administration will not achieve this.

OXFORD – On April 8, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that he will close France’s elite postgraduate school for training public leaders, the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA). Macron, himself an énarque (as graduates are known), says he wants to encourage equal opportunity and national excellence, and respond better to the challenges of COVID-19. But eliminating ENA will likely represent only a negligible step toward this goal.

Ironically, ENA was established in 1945 by General Charles de Gaulle to break up the French elite and overturn a system of patronage and spoils that had produced a corrupt and inefficient public administration. Admission to the school was thus subject to competitive examination, with those winning places offered a salary for their studies.

Similarly, the United Kingdom’s Northcote-Trevelyan reforms a century earlier – which drew on Sir Charles Trevelyan’s experience rooting out corruption in Britain’s Indian civil service, as well as on the example of imperial China – sought to introduce recruitment by open, competitive examination, and make promotion merit-based. Subsequently, almost all countries – from the United States, Japan, and China to Ghana and Nigeria – have sought to embed meritocracy in their public administration, many by using examinations.

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