Liberté, égalité, fraternité (but some more equal than others)

In France, insurrection is stirring once more. This time, the rebellion comes from within the elite universities, the grandes écoles, as they vehemently oppose the government’s efforts to impose a target on scholarships, forcing them to accept more diversification. These institutions are highly elitist: 90% of students are middle or upper class, the vast majority are white. Nearly all France’s political and business leaders have been trained at the écoles. It is a prerequisite to success. It is demonstrably a system of self-perpetuating elitism.

The state rhetoric of meritocracy and republican virtue is rendered void by the attitudes and practices of the institutions and a powerful minority. Educational leaders argue that the reforms would lead to a ‘lowering of standards.’ They imply that scholarship candidates are less able. In fact they are simply less schooled in a very specific skill set.

In order to enter the grandes écoles, one has to pass the concours. Middle and upper class children are often prepared for these exams from a very young age and are likely to take a year out to prepare. This is obviously a luxury many families cannot afford. These notoriously difficult tests require a deep and detailed knowledge of French culture. This is a breeze for children whose parents are alumni of the grandes écoles and expect the family tradition to continue. They have probably been played Debussy in the womb and fallen asleep to Molière as a bedtime story. Children of different heritage, or from lower socio-economic groups have less chance of success.

But fate is set even before the concours. Getting into the right lycée and taking the right baccalauréat determine a child’s future. Even primary school places are a factor as they can determine which secondary school the child attends. This has lead to richer parents using cleaners’ addresses and renting flats closer to schools- tactics not unheard of here. However, the most frequent, well documented and worrying means to ensure their child’s place at the right school seems to be making a call to a powerful friend. This is attributed to a Tocquevillian attitude, ‘La règle est rigide, la practique est molle.’ (the rules are rigid, the practice is not.) For those with connections, perhaps.

Gaetano Mosca, the father of democratic elitism, famously declared that ‘ruling classes do not justify their power exclusively by de facto possession of it, but try to find a moral and legal basis for it, representing it as the logical and necessary consequence of doctrines and beliefs that are generally recognised and accepted.’

In France, and elsewhere, a system that appears to be democratic, open and universal is used and subverted by those with superior wealth and power. For evidence of this in the UK, see Nik Williams’ marvellous article on the class character of the latest government proposals on education. Disadvantage at an early age too often means disadvantage in later life. To reform at university level is a step in the right direction, although perhaps it is too late. Equal opportunities must be ensured from the outset so, as Chevènement said, the elite is based on its ‘work, worth and talent’, rather than its wealth, birth and contacts.

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