STRASBOURG, France—One school has been the cradle of the French establishment for decades, grooming future presidents, prime ministers and chief executives.
Now, one of its most illustrious alumni, President Emmanuel Macron, wants to shut his alma mater, the École Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, an institution that has become a symbol of France’s close-knit elite and persistent class divide.
Mr. Macron aims to placate yellow-vest protesters who have bedeviled his government for months, accusing him of paying too little heed to the economic pain of the working and rural class.
ENA has become a particular target, along with its graduates, known as énarques.
The president’s proposal comes at the end of months of high-profile public debates he organized in response to the demonstrations.
“We need to abolish ENA,” Mr. Macron said in April.
The school’s closure would be part of a broader push to overhaul France’s education system for high-ranking civil servants in an effort to improve opportunities for the underprivileged. Mr. Macron has pledged “to build something new that works better,” but hasn’t provided further details.
ENA was designed as a meritocracy to open better opportunities to all students regardless of their background. But critics say the school has become a breeding ground for cronyism, perpetuating a social pecking order that allows énarques to monopolize top positions in society. They run the prime minister’s office, the finance ministry, the central bank, two of the highest courts and many top private-sector companies. Three of France’s past four presidents are graduates of the two-year program.
“It’s a very French hypocrisy. The system is egalitarian on paper but unequal in practice,” said Jean-Pascal Lanuit, a senior official at the culture ministry and a former ENA student.
But many believe shutting ENA won’t change an elitist culture perpetuated by a two-tier education system. On one side, there are highly competitive institutions known as grandes écoles, public and private schools that are akin to the U.S. Ivy League schools, including engineering school École Polytechnique and business school HEC Paris.
On the other are universities open to almost everyone, but with sometimes crowded classrooms and crumbling facilities.
ENA was founded after World War II to better train high-ranking civil servants and open top government positions that had been reserved for “wealthy students living in Paris,” according to a 1945 government document. The creation was orchestrated by the then-general secretary of the French communist party, under Charles de Gaulle’s temporary government.
Tuition is free and students receive a monthly stipend to pay for books and housing.
But critics say ENA counts few students from rural, low-income families, and most current students are young white men.
The main reason, critics say, is the growing inequality of the French education system. Indeed, most ENA students have attended France’s top high schools and one of the best preparatory classes for the entrance exam. As a result, instead of promoting social mobility, the system ends up subsidizing the education of the rich with taxpayers’ money.
Many ENA students come from similar neighborhoods and attended the same schools. “I knew almost everyone there when I arrived in school,” said Florian Paret, a 27-year-old Parisian and second-year student at ENA, who graduated from the elite Paris Institute of Political Studies.
There are fewer opportunities for social advancement today compared with 40 years ago, said Ségolène Royal, a former minister and socialist candidate for the 2007 presidential elections who attended ENA and graduated in 1980.
“I’m not sure that it would have been possible for me today to follow the same path because there’s a kind of state aristocracy that has established itself,” said Ms. Royal, who came from a middle-income family in eastern France, recently. While at ENA, she met François Hollande, who would become her long-term partner and French president.
Once inside ENA, competition is fierce because top-ranked students can cherry-pick the most prestigious government posts upon graduation, including working at France’s highest courts or powerful state auditing bodies.
“Competition is part of the school’s DNA,” said Alexandre Allegret-Pilot, 30, who had degrees in biology, law and business before entering ENA.
After they graduate, énarques must work for the government for at least 10 years. If they leave earlier, they need to partly reimburse the school for tuition; usually private companies that hire young énarques pay back ENA as part of the hiring compensation.
Today, more former students move between the private and public sectors, deepening the perception that énarques monopolize top positions. After joining the state auditing body, Mr. Macron worked for private bank Rothschild & Cie. from 2008 to 2012, before moving back to government.
The vast majority of énarques, however, work for the government for their entire career. Few actually run for office, even if the school is known for producing presidents and ministers.
“ENA is being used as a scapegoat,” said Joachim Bitterlich, a former German diplomat and member of ENA’s board, who graduated in 1974.
More recently, ENA, which accepts a few international students a year, has sought to broaden its student body, notably by creating preparatory classes for the entrance exam for students from underprivileged areas.
“ENA can change,” said Daniel Keller, who heads the alumni association. “But I’m all for preserving the ENA brand. It’s a label that has value.”
It will be up to Frédéric Thiriez, an énarque Mr. Macron chose in April to lead the overhaul of France’s civil servants’ training.
Even if ENA were to close, it isn’t clear if that will be enough to appease the yellow vests.
“That’s secondary,” said Theo Feugueur, a 19-year-old law student in the Paris region, who takes part in yellow-vest protests every Saturday. “He should abolish all the grandes écoles.”