The Rise and Fall of Meritocracy

Meritocracy: the word sounds nothing but good. It means rule by those who have merit. Such merit is usually understood to be academic achievement, a combination of talent and training. This is measured by academic degrees, which in turn are graded on merit: A, B, C, D, or First, Upper Second, Lower Second, Third.

Who would not wish to live in a meritocracy? It is certainly preferable to a plutocracy, in which wealth determines status, or a gerontocracy, in which age leads one to the top, or even an aristocracy, in which what counts are inherited titles and properties.

So meritocracy seems preferable, at least at first sight. But, on closer inspection, things are not so simple.

For many, France has long been the epitome of meritocracy. Most of those in the top reaches of not only the civil service and the judiciary, but also politics, business, and academia used to be graduates of the famous grandes écoles . Many then went through the rigorous training to become inspecteurs de finance , senior state officials.