ENA – Elite Public Education in FranceJune 27, 2008
The Ecole Nationale d’ Administration (ENA) was the result of a disaster. The disaster called World War II. Until then, it was the role of universities in France to impart education, which remained hotbeds of feudalism, clericalism and intellectual conservatism. But as a post World War purges of 1944-45, France desperately wanted to replenish the higher ranks of its civil service. Hence the birth of ENA.
In 1945, in the first year of ENA’s service, the school didn’t even have a building, let alone a curriculum. The only thing the new students could do was field training. Soon after, the directors realized the wisdom of giving students contact with the real world after so many years in the education system of cramming for exams.
ENA’s program lasts 27 months. But the first two six months are for field training even today. The internships are in a prefecture, embassy or even a French multinational corporation.
After the field training come the classes. The courses cover administration of a prefecture, control of community affairs and management of public affairs. Informal courses and through role plays, the students are taught about economic analysis and decision making. They are taught how to evaluate a budget and assess diplomatic efforts. In teams of twelve, they produce a group report on weighty topics such as assessing France’s energy policy, the minimum wage reform or unification of Germany.
Each year the Prime Minister reserves top positions in each ministry for ENA’s top graduates. They begin their careers where the best civil servants usually expect to end theirs. About one half of the ministers in any present cabinet, six of the last nine Prime Ministers and two of the last three Presidents were from ENA.
All this, not without reason. And that being the competitive nature of the selection process, which make sure that only the best are taken into the ENA. The entrance tests are divided into two parts: Written and Oral.
Candidates write five tests of five hours each on public law, economy, political thought, second language proficiency (Second language is a language other than French) and the European Union(Or Social Affairs). They are required to analyse issues like “Recent reforms of the qualified majority in the European Commission” or “The place of the contract in Administrative Law”. They have to read sixty pages of documents and produce a ministerial memorandum on an issue like ‘Amendments to the language Law of June 1994’.
The written tests eliminate six of seven prospective candidates. Those who pass become eligible for the oral examinations. The first part consists of three hours of oral exams to test candidates capacity to speak a second language and their general knowledge of public finance. Foreign affairs, Social Affairs and European Union. The fourth examination is the Grand O (Grand Oral), in which for 45 minutes, a five person jury questions candidates on anything. This is public. Anyone interested to watch, can.
ENA students are graded on everything they do during their 27 months of study. Each course ends with a five hour exam, during which a student much read eighty pages of material on the topic of study and produce a four page ministerial memorandum. At the end of all this, the students tend to choose their postings (among the ones available) according to their grade.
This choice by rank system also serves a broader purpose. It helps prevent the kind of thickly woven network of contacts, friends and political sympathizers. Before ENA, families, associations and political parties monopolized the ministerial services. Now, ministers have no choice about the candidate they hire under them. The Government is forced to cooperate with a corps of prefects and a Conseil d’ Etat that wasn’t put there by friends or family.
PS: Almost all the points were taken from a particular chapter of the book “Sixty Million Frenchmen can’t be Wrong”. Quite an informative book which attempts to understand the ways of a nation whose public administration ranks among the best in the world.
To read more such articles, you could visit the People Places and Culture section of this blog.