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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.”
My five-day journey into the heart of cold arms.
As a heterosexual woman over 30, I have been haunted by this photo of Jeff Bezos looking surprisingly swole since it appeared during the Sun Valley Conference last summer. I don’t want to get into it, and neither do you, but let’s all agree that his vest and aviators are definitely a LOOK.
Bezos’s vest showing off his sun-dappled biceps is perhaps the perfect example of what I’m calling the “Power Vest” — fleece or quilted vests that are favored by all kinds of bros:
- tech bros of Silicon Valley,
- finance bros of New York,
- sales bros and
- finance bros all over the country
(I have no evidence that this is an international trend, and presumably this doesn’t apply to warmer parts of the US).I should clarify here I am speaking about vests worn by men. Yes, people of all genders people wear vests of all kinds. But this is a particular slice of bro culture. Women’s business attire has a whole different set of rules, even in these same industries. The Power Vest flaunts a very cruel male privilege: being comfortable.
Clothes send a message. The vests are not just a convenient warmth layer. There is meaning there. There are layers to this layer. The adoption of the vest by men who work in industries like tech and finance says something about this garment.
The vest means power. And as a lowly woman, I would like some power. Or at least to FEEL powerful — like a master of the universe, able to make snap decisions and be feared and respected by all I come in contact with. Which is why I decided I would wear a vest to the office for a week.
My first order of business was to decide what kind of vest to wear: fleece or quilted. I talked to my editors who are based in San Francisco, and they both emphatically said quilted, specifically Patagonia Nano Puff. But I was imagining a more dressed-up bro look — a fleece vest over a crisp white shirt and maybe even slacks and brown leather shoes.
I think here is the divide: West Coast tech bros always wear quilted vests, and East Coast finance bros still wear fleece.
It was clear I needed an impartial person who thinks really hard about different types of Power Vests and what they mean. It would be useless to ask the bros themselves, because everyone knows bros can’t be asked for opinions, at least not for articulate ones about fashion. So I reached out to possibly THE perfect expert for this: Eric Daman, the costume designer for the TV show Billions, which is about people who work at a hedge fund, but also about the depravity of toxic masculinity amplified by the excesses of money. Which is to say, a show loaded with Power Vests.
Not all Billions characters wear vests: The main character, Bobby Axelrod, never wears them (Daman explains his look is more of perfectly fitting Tom Ford tee) — and his lieutenant “Wags” sticks to suits, a kind of throwback to the precrash era. But one character on Billions, “Dollar” Bill, has been my fleece business vest inspo. “Dollar Bill always wears his Axe Capital [the name of the fictional hedge fund] fleece,” Daman said. He’s older, less hip, and notoriously cheap, hence wearing the free company swag. It’s also a statement of his character’s willingness to do anything for his boss. “I think out of devotion and honor that he chooses to only wear the fleece,” explained Daman. “It’s kind of like how the Scottish clans have their own tartan.”
Two other vest-wearing characters are also carefully chosen. One analyst, Ben Kim, who is younger, wears an Arc’teryx brand vest, made of a thin performance fabric, which is hipper and more youthful than a stodgy fleece or puffer. Another character, Everett, who was poached from another fund and therefore already has his own money, wears a Burberry vest to signal his higher financial status.
Indeed, I learned that vests can get quite expensive. That Jeff Bezos vest? It appears to be a $995 Ralph Lauren. You didn’t think Bezdaddy was going to slum around in a Patagonia, did you?
My vest budget was more limited. My editor informed me that BuzzFeed News was certainly not going to expense a $150 Nanopuff, so I decided to stick with something more modest: an L.L.Bean fleece vest I got as a teen in 1995 and was still at my parents’ house.
I was pretty into my first outfit: loose black jeans, off-white vintage button-down with a weird scene of a pond and ducks on the front, and of course, my vest. A jaunty masculine look. Looking in the mirror at home I saw a savvy businessperson. The Power Vest was working!
I got to the office and my deskmate, Joe, looked at me and said, “Nice vest. You know what you look like?”
“What?” I asked.
At midmorning I experienced a moment of extreme powerlessness. I noticed our floor was out of milk for coffee, so I went to grab a gallon from another floor. The BuzzFeed office has several floors, broken up by department. I sit on the news floor. I see these people every day, I know them, I don’t feel ashamed of wearing a relatively ugly vest around them. The next floor up, where I was getting milk, is where the fashion and lifestyle team sits.
All of a sudden I felt a deep sting of shame, aware of how utterly uncool I looked in front of these people who were dressed much more fashionably. It was that burning shame feeling of when you walk into a room of strangers and realize you’re extremely over- or underdressed. I wanted to scream “It’s for an article!” as a disclaimer, but that would’ve been very weird since no one was asking.
It was harder to figure out what kind of outfit to wear for day 2. I settled on a black button-down blouse with white piping and black jeans again. I don’t really think it worked quite as well — it seemed mismatched to have a casual vest over this dressier top. I didn’t feel powerful.