Monday, February 18, 2008

Not Your Father's Ancien Régime

The other day I criticized overzealous republicans for likening Sarkozy to a monarch. Today I will criticize The New York Times for committing another misplaced analogy, comparing today's French elite to the Ancien Régime.

The fallacy is exposed in the article itself, but the writers are too pleased with themselves to notice. They point out that the elite, though cemented by personal bonds and prepared by just a few schools (they concentrate exclusively on X and ENA), is much more meritocratic than the comparable American elite. This is an aristocracy only in the etymological sense: rule by excellence (narrowly measured), not by hereditary transmission (except to the extent that excellence can be passed on by cultural, non-genetic means, and this is an important caveat, since many elite recruits are the children of teachers and professors). Numerous graduates of these and other top schools (and of the Club des Cent, which serves the writers as a convenient architectural metaphor, rather like the Palace of Versailles, enclosing everyone who counts within a hall of mirrors) come from relatively "humble" backgrounds (though not as humble as the writers imply: they might have profited by reading any of the many studies of mobility in France, which consistently show that the recruitment pool is not uniform and that some elements of the French population are all but excluded from hopes of meritocratic advancement).

The journalists limit their attention to the top 40 French companies, more than half of which are run, they say, by graduates of these two schools. What is noteworthy is that top French firms select their top executives for the kinds of skill, savoir-faire, and breeding transmitted by these schools, not the fact that elite schools feed the elite. Elite schools in the US also feed various elites: ask, for instance, how many partners of Goldmann Sachs attended Ivy League schools. But other companies recruit elsewhere, especially manufacturing companies, and American executives are therefore more likely to have risen through competition within the world of business.

The entire article seems to have been prompted by the fact that Daniel Bouton, graduate of X and member of the Club des Cent, remains in his position at the head of SocGen, despite the scandal. Yes, this probably would not be the case in the US, but did we really need to hear yet again from Bernard-Henri Lévy, the Times' universal expert on all things French (the Times really needs to expand its Rolodex on French subjects)? One would still like to know how much this has to do with old school ties and how much with French corporate governance and ownership structures, or with the nature of investment banking and especially the mathematically-oriented derivatives trade? Alain Minc is also a product of elite schools (Mines and ENA), but he is out at Le Monde. And Bouton may not remain much longer at SocGen, as additional information emerges from the investigation (today it was revealed that there were warnings about Kerviel's trades as early as September of last year).

It is good to see the Times at last devote a lengthy article to France; it is unfortunate that the article remains wholly on the surface and cannot get over its lead analogy or its obsession with certain nationally "marked" traits of culture, such as the gastronomic proclivities of the Club des Cent. If our newspapers tell us that the American elite consumes greasy chicken wings in its skyboxes high above vast football stadiums while the French elite sniffs Nuits-Saint-Georges and nibbles at salade de foie gras at Taillevent, do we learn what we need to know about either?


Anonymous said...

I fully agree with you Art. The Times' analogy is empty – at least, it is not relevant today. The ENA power is doomed to decline, as Sarkozy wants to reduce the number of ENA graduates (by something like 20 % per year). The number of ENA graduates at the top of CAC 40 firms is due to the fact that many of them used to be state-owned (BNP, Renault, Air France, France Telecom, etc.) which is not the case anymore (except for EDF). And outside CAC 40, there are much less ENA graduates CEOs, as you point out.

The real problem is the selection process of the top Grandes Ecoles ; and it is more and more the object of attention and debate in France (from Sciences Po Paris opening its doors to ZEP students, to the Paris Lycée Henri IV creating a "prep prep class" dedicated to « boursiers »).

(A very little mistake in your post : interestingly enough, Bouton is no X graduate, but Sciences Po Paris and ENA.)

By the way, thank you for this absolutely brilliant blog, which has become my main source of thought on French politics. Keep on the good job !

Gabriel, a French reader

Unknown said...

Thanks for the correction--and the compliment.

Anonymous said...

On a related subject, could you post your thoughts on Elaine Sciolino's coverage of France in the Times? Ever since she's gotten the France beat something about her writing makes me grit my teeth, and at this point my dentist is concerned. Shallow sterotypes of French pompousness? Deliberately awkward translations to make the French seem silly? Your thoughts would be appreciated.