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?

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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.

There are, in fact, striking parallels between PPE and the ENA. Both had radical beginnings, rooted in a desire to break with the past. When PPE, the older of the two, was founded at the University of Oxford in 1921, the idea was to offer a new and exciting course that transcended staid disciplinary boundaries.