Marine Le Pen Sylvain Lefevre/Getty Images

Long Reads

The Fall of the French Ruling Class?

This year’s French presidential election represents an extraordinary popular rebuke, on both the left and the right, to the country’s established political parties and candidates. But what does the Le Pen-Macron match-up reveal about France’s political elite more broadly, and about the Fifth Republic its members serve?

CAMBRIDGE – How did it come to this? That is what much of the world, and certainly almost all of the French elite, is asking ahead of the second round of France’s presidential election. Charles de Gaulle included the runoff in the constitution of the Fifth Republic to force the French to choose responsibly – something he was never certain they would do unless pushed. And yet the choice this year still came down to Marine Le Pen, heir to the ugliest of all French traditions – that of collaborationist Vichy France – and the 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron, who has never held elective office and was only briefly a government minister.

Some blame France’s sclerotic economy for voters’ rebellion against the establishment candidates. Others blame the European Union for its seeming aloofness and incompetence. But the French elite, perhaps one of the most cosseted and cloistered of any Western elite nowadays, bears its share of responsibility, too.

A Gallic Formation

If the United Kingdom has PPE (or philosophy, politics, and economics), the Oxford “degree that runs Britain,” as The Guardian recently put it, the French, too, are governed largely by three letters: ENA. Just as PPE unites British prime ministers such as Harold Wilson, Edward Heath, and David Cameron, as well as opposition leaders like Hugh Gaitskell and Ed Miliband, the École nationale d’administration appears on the résumés of French Presidents Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Jacques Chirac, and François Hollande; Prime Ministers Édouard Balladur, Michel Rocard, Lionel Jospin, Alain Juppé, Laurent Fabius, and Dominique de Villepin; and senior politicians such as Ségolène Royale and Macron himself.

To continue reading, please subscribe to On Point.

To access On Point, log in or register now now and read two On Point articles for free. For unlimited access to the unrivaled analysis of On Point, subscribe now.


Log in;
  1. A giant election campaign board supporting Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi i KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

    The Struggle for Egypt’s Future

    • The ideological war between Islamists and nationalists has defined the politics of the Arab world for at least 60 years, and shows no sign of ending. 

    • While the impending reelection of Egyptian strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi suggests that the nationalists have won, all it will really mean is that the Egyptian people have lost, yet again.
  2. Financial planning report Getty Images

    The Metric God That Failed

    • Over the past few decades, formal institutions have increasingly been subjected to performance measurements that define success or failure according to narrow and arbitrary metrics. 

    • The outcome should have been predictable: institutions have done what they can to boost their performance metrics, often at the expense of performance itself.
  3.  Laborers fill orders of machine grade steel to be shipped throughout the Pacific Northwest Natalie Behring/Getty Images

    Trump and the All-American Trade Debate

    • Donald Trump’s recently announced tariffs on imported steel and aluminum have raised fears that his administration will roll back the rules-based free-trade system that has facilitated global commerce since World War II. 

    • But a closer examination of the history of US trade policy shows that Trump’s protectionist gambits are neither new, nor likely to have a lasting effect.
  4. Pictures of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary Paul Chan of Hong Kong ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

    The Asian Values Debate Returns

    • For the time being, concrete evidence of policy success in countries like China and India may well be the most effective way to buttress the case for applying non-Western perspectives to national development strategies. 

    • But, in the longer term, non-Western thinkers will need to translate their ideas into testable models and theories.