Affirmative Action A La Française


Stalinist-style social engineering is not quite dead. Indeed, it flourishes. In France, a controversy has broken out about the admission policies to the grandes ecoles, the elite tertiary educational establishments such as the Polytechnique and the Ecole Nationale d’Administration that, since Napoleon’s time, have provided France with much of its business, government and cultural elite.

Admission to one of the grandes ecoles more or less guarantees the student a prosperous subsequent career. Entry is by competitive examination; and it has long been a proud boast of France that such entry is by ability rather than by social connection or political prominence, for talented young people from poor homes are given a state subsidy that allows them to attend. The openness of the grandes ecoles to talent from wherever in society it comes is taken as one of the great achievements of the French Revolution.

But the purely formal nature of equality of opportunity that the grandes ecoles exemplifies has recently come under attack led by no less a personage than the President of the Republic who, though nominally conservative, argues like any left-wing demagogue.

The students at the grandes ecoles are in fact overwhelmingly from the comfortable middle or upper-middle classes. They do not represent the French population in the demographic sense at all; a child from the 16th arrondissement of Paris is far more likely to pass the entry examination than a child from the concrete wasteland that surrounds Paris. M. Sarkozy, taking populist advantage of this unsurprising fact like any unscrupulous politician, is supporting a proposal that 30 per cent of students should be taken, ex officio as it were, from poor backgrounds.

One way to achieve this ‘target’ is to change the nature of the entrance examination, which emphasises, among other things such as science and mathematics, modern languages (essentially English) and a knowledge of general culture such as history and literature.

Middle and upper-middle class children are at an unfair advantage, according to M. Sarkozy and other supporters of the proposal, because their parents are much more likely to be able to send them abroad for linguistic holidays than are poor parents. (My observation of my French nephews and nieces leads me to doubt whether such linguistic holidays are quite as advantageous as they are supposed to be.) So it would only be fair and socially just to suppress mastery of modern languages as a criterion for entry to the grandes ecoles.

What is true of languages is even truer of general culture, for it is obvious that children of cultivated parents have an enormous advantage over others: and cultivated parents tend to be of higher social class also. Therefore, the requirement that students should have general culture should also be suppressed.

This kind of reasoning was subject to the mockery of a historian, Sebastien Fach, in the pages of Le Monde, which are not generally known for their light satirical touch. Imagine, said Mr. Fach, the time a few years hence when social reformers have had their way, and the French national soccer team is no longer selected only from the best players in the best professional teams in the league, who are demographically unrepresentative of the population as a whole. Think of all the other people who play football in France: can they not run and do all the other things that the best professional players can do? Why should they be excluded from representing their nation? Why not women, children, the aged? A truly democratic team.

Mr. Fach rightly points out that while it would be quick and easy to lower the standards of the grandes ecoles, it would be slow and difficult to improve the standards of the secondary schools serving children from poor homes, and thereby giving them a better chance of admission to the grandes ecoles. Like any good politician, Mr Sarkozy opts for the line of least resistance, the soft option.

By far the most interesting fact to emerge from the debate is that the proportion of children from relatively poor homes attending the grandes ecoles declined precipitously in the first half century of France’s existence as a full welfare state: from 29 per cent in 1950 to 9 per cent in mid 1990s.

Of course, it is possible that, during this period, the proportion of children from relatively poor homes in the population as a whole also declined, although it is unlikely to have declined by two thirds, as the proportion of children from poor homes attending the grandes ecoles has done; one still say, therefore that at the very least the welfare state, one of whose justifications was the need to equalise opportunities, has failed signally to do so. If anything, the reverse. One might, if one were inclined to conspiracy theories, construe the welfare state as the means by which the middle class ensures that their children face no competition from clever children of the lower class.

The heart of the problem lies in the unassailability of the term ‘equality of opportunity,’ and the unthinking assent it commands. I was once asked on Dutch TV whether I was in favour of it, the interviewer assuming that I must be so in spite of all my other appalling opinions; and when I said that I was not, and indeed that I thought it was a truly hideous notion, his eyes opened with surprise. I thought he was going to slip off his chair.

Only under conditions reminiscent of those of Brave New World could there be equality of opportunity. But, of course, the very unattainability of equality of opportunity (in any sense other than that of an absence of formal, legal impediments to social advance) is precisely what recommends it as an ideal to politicians such as President Sarkozy, and indeed to most other western politicians, virtually irrespective of their putative political stripe. The fact that, reform notwithstanding, there are always differences in outcomes for different groups or classes of human beings in any society means that there is always scope, in the name of equality of opportunity, for further interference and control by politicians and bureaucrats. Not permanent revolution (to change the communist metaphor from Stalinism to Trotskyism), but permanent reform is the modern western politico-bureaucratic class’s route to lasting power and control.

Why anyone should want lasting power and control is to me a mystery: I suppose it must be the answer to a deep and insatiable inner emptiness.

  • shane comeback

    Don't DO it, lil' Frog people! Look what has become of the US: Our entire government is the result of affirmative action!

  • Steve Chavez

    Haitians speak French because of the French so let's see what France will do!

    They could help in the language barrier and they could also take in a few hundred thousand, or a few million, of them as their readjustment would be made millions of times easier.

    I eagerly await the French reaction!

    • Marie

      Americans, French, Chineses are the most important contingent coming over

    • Doug

      You are on the right track already. The Canadian province of Quebec has taken in a lot of Haitians in recent years, PURELY because they speak French, and they wanted to swell the ranks of francophones. What they didn't bargain for was the array of social problems you get when backward people are imported in large numbers. I doubt if France will take very many, it is a long way away!

  • FBastiat
  • Avidyananda

    My analogy was always the 100 meter dash. By using a stopwatch and a finish line, slow white guys are at a disadvantage. If you look at the racial makeup of the US Olympic Track and Field Team, we can see "disparate impact" of the Olympic trials in which the first guy to the finish line is chosen for the team. This is not fair. Either eliminate finishing first second or third as a "qualification," or give the white guys (and Asians, too, I guess) a ten or fifteen yard head start.

    Also: the NBA clearly needs an Affirmative Action problem. (once saw some washroom graffitti: NBA needs affirmative action–give those poor white guys a chance to play.
    Response: Get some skills, then you can play…
    Response to Response: Then it wouldn't be Affirmative Action, would it?

    Ironically, Frenchman Touqueville pointed out that freedom and equality would always be at odds with each other.

  • Marie

    still the "grandes ecoles" were and are the wealthiest classes promotion insturment that popular classes can't afford

    so the 30% of students with a scholarship is a fair share if these students manage to pass the test of admission

    Also it would be fair enough that they benefit of a 2 years of training courses too

  • Test Test

    The French may owe minorites there something. I don't know their history that well.

    But the problem with Affirmative Action is that it ignores incentives. Give a guy a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Give a guy, and anyone related to him, a fish, and he'll have ten kids and invite all his relatives over for dinner.

    Reparations payments make a lot more sense, incentive-wise. If you owe a guy a few fish, because you oppressed his ancestors, issue a bond and pay him what you can (given the fact that the current population most certianly outnumbers the number of oppressed ancestors.) But don't start offering incentives to all of his future relatives and still-overseas cousins…you're asking for the population to change and for the payments to steadily increase if you do that.

  • BBRebozo

    Sur la pont d'Avignon.

  • Test Test

    "Sur la pont d'Avignon. "

    I don't know how to say this in French, but if you jump, the remaining white people will only owe them more.

  • Test Test

    Kids who get in based on affirmative action, and then just barely get through, become eligible for more affirmative action. This will continue until they reach a point–not just of incompetence–but of absolute incompetence where Affirmative Action can no longer be applied.

    I'm amazed at how liberals will look at someone like Justice Sotomayor and say "see–that proves that the tests don't predict much" rather than saying "wow someone with low scores got pushed ahead that far–I guess the breaks just never stop coming."

  • SoberHorseThief

    If these schools are as wonderful as they are said to be, then, as Thomas Sowell finds in the U.S., affirmative action students will flunk out at a much higher rate than other students. Indeed, kids who get into Ivy League based on Daddy's money are also much more likely to flunk out.

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  • Jacinta Levan
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