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Sarkozy takes on France's "School of Power"

STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - President Nicolas Sarkozy has made his views about France’s elite training college for top civil servants abundantly clear: he doesn’t like it and thinks it needs a shake-up.

Students of the French National School of Admnistration (Ecole Nationale d'Administration) take a break in front of their school in Strasbourg January 21, 2009. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler/Files

The Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) admits fewer than 100 students per year, yet its alumni populate the senior ranks of the state machinery, politics and business.

It has produced two presidents, thousands of civil servants, dozens of ministers and a succession of blue-chip company chief executives since it was founded in 1945.

Sarkozy is not one of them.

The battle he fought to reach the presidency may shed some light on why he is suspicious of an institution with such a grip on the levers of power.

First, he had to overcome opposition from his predecessor, ENA graduate Jacques Chirac. Next, he had to see off a rival in his own center-right camp, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, another ENA alumnus. Finally, he had to win an election against Socialist candidate Segolene Royal -- ENA again.

“A political family is made up of fighters, people who like a struggle, who like to convince, to take risks. That’s perhaps the difference between us and a famous school for senior civil servants,” he told a party rally in January to cheers.

Labeled “School of Power” in a television drama earlier this year, ENA is seen by its many critics as an elitist club, despite its stated goal of training neutral civil servants.

Sarkozy wants an in-depth reform of the school, starting with a plan to scrap its legendary exit ranking which automatically gives top graduates access to the cream of civil service jobs.

“USED AS A SCAPEGOAT”

Other details of Sarkozy’s plans for ENA have not emerged yet, but if he succeeds in reforming the school, that in turn could change the profile of France’s ruling class.

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At ENA’s fortress-like medieval building in the eastern city of Strasbourg, staff play down the school’s political clout. Since its foundation in 1945, most graduates have stayed in the civil service, with only 20 percent going into business and less than 6 percent into politics.

As trainee civil servants, the students cannot comment on government policy and thus cannot respond to Sarkozy. However, they give the impression that they feel unfairly treated.

“ENA is a brand that can easily be used as a scapegoat,” said Mohammed Adnene Trojette, 26, who started in January.

The students says the ethos of public service is their motivation.

“I want to be at the service of others. At least if I work long hours, I’ll be able to tell my children ‘I’m doing it for you’,” said Christine Jacob, 29.

Emmanuel Dupuis, 32, gave up a lucrative career in the private sector to go through ENA’s fiercely competitive selection process and pledge his future to the state.

“What do we mean by ‘elitism’? If it means taking the best, wherever they come from, after making sure they have equal chances, maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” he said.

Equality of opportunity is central to the debate about ENA kindled by Sarkozy.

“It’s impossible not to see the ever-widening gap between the diversity of French society and the social and cultural homogeneity of the elites produced by our education system,” he said in a speech in December.

STICTLY MERITOCRATIC

In theory, access to ENA is strictly meritocratic: those marking the exam papers do not know who the candidates are.

In practice, ENA is a post-graduate college that at the very end of a long series of selection processes that do not offer equal chances to all in French society. A candidate has to attend a good school then an excellent college to have a chance.

That does mean only the rich are eligible -- the best French schools are free and run by the state. If ENA students are an elite, it is an intellectual rather than a moneyed one: half of this year’s intake have at least one parent who is a teacher.

“Teachers’ children tend to receive educational attention from their parents and that prepares them better ... for exams,” explained Bernard Boucault, the director of ENA.

However, not all state schools are equal. Children who grow up in poor areas with bad schools are unlikely to make it to

ENA.

The ENA students recognized this, but they rejected the idea of creating a parallel admissions system for people from under-privileged backgrounds, a solution adopted by the prestigious Sciences Po university that has worked well there.

“To challenge the logic of the entrance examination is to challenge the meritocracy,” said Renaud Villard, 32.

Instead, ENA relies on colleges such as Sciences Po that prepare students for its entrance exam, to encourage social diversity and produce ENA candidates from modest backgrounds.

“That’s exactly what the president has been talking about. More must be done to help those who come from a lower starting point,” said Boucault.

Editing by Andrew Dobbie

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