Affirmative Action A La Française

A politically correct assault threatens France’s elite academic institution.


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.