[EDLING:1129] Elite French Schools Block the Poor's Path to Power

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at CCAT.SAS.UPENN.EDU
Tue Dec 20 02:06:44 UTC 2005

December 18, 2005
Elite French Schools Block the Poor's Path to Power

PARIS, Dec. 17 - 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-lyses to commemorate Armistice Day. They were students of the
grandes coles, 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 last 30 years. Two opposition leaders, Franois 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 Franois
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 SAT's 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 1950's, 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.

The barriers for second-generation immigrants are enormous. Schools in
poor, often immigrant neighborhoods get the most inexperienced teachers,
who usually move on as soon as they have gained enough tenure for a job in
a better area.

The initial fork in the lives of many young people comes when they are
about 13 and have to choose between a general course of study or
vocational training. Many young second-generation immigrants are guided
into technical classes or, at best, post-high-school associate degree
programs in marketing or business that are of little help in finding a

Second-generation immigrants also often "live in an environment that is
outside of French culture," said Mr. Descoings of Sciences Po. "They are
not in the proper social network. There isn't the socialization that
exists in a wealthy family in an exclusive neighborhood of Paris."

Sitting outside Paul luard High School in Saint-Denis, one of the poorest
suburbs north of Paris, Belinda Caci, 16, calls the school guidance
counselor "the head of disorientation," saying that the school cares only
about making sure that the students graduate, not what happens after that.

"To become part of this crme de la crme, you have to have benefited from a
favorable social environment and education," the sociologist, Mr. Dubet,
said, calling graduates of the grandes ecoles a sort of state nobility.
"It's like the Olympics; you have to begin very, very early."


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