France, As Revealed by its Elite

European Straits #181

Hi, it’s Nicolas from The Family. Here’s some rare coverage of my home country of France, and how its lagging behind in tech is explained by who rules the country 🇫🇷

🇫🇷 I haven’t covered my home country of France for quite some time, for various reasons. But today I’m making an exception due to the following:

  • Next Tuesday is Bastille Day 🎉 We’ll commemorate angry protestors taking to the streets of Paris, seeding disorder & unlawfulness, and even beheading the military governor of the Bastille fortress 😱 (Maybe someone was tweeting “LAW AND ORDER!” from Versailles that day? 😜)

  • My family and I are spending a few months in France (out in the middle of rural Normandy). We had to leave London 🇬🇧 in a hurry earlier this year due to the pandemic, and we’re waiting for the dust to settle before we can make a long-planned move to Munich, Germany 🇩🇪

  • And France has a new Prime Minister, with Jean Castex taking over from Édouard Philippe. It’s a good opportunity to have an in-depth discussion on France, how it’s lagging behind in tech, and why that’s partly explained by how it selects and trains its elite 👇

1/ The École nationale d'administration (‘ENA’) is where all top French technocrats are trained. Out of a 100-person class, the 15 young énarques ranking at the top usually join one of the three so-called grands corps (literally ‘Great Bodies’):

  • The Cour des comptes (literally ‘Accounting Court’) is the equivalent of an Inspector General for the entire government—vaguely comparable to the US Government Accountability Office.

  • The Conseil d'État (‘State Council’) is France’s equivalent of the US Supreme Court for half the legal system—specifically administrative courts, which judge all cases involving the government.

  • The Inspection générale des finances is different from an Inspector General in the US: it’s more of an in-house McKinsey serving the finance minister and the cabinet in general.

It is unclear whether there's much of a hierarchy of prestige between the three grands corps. I have my own opinion, of course 😉

Disclaimer: I studied at ENA and joined the Inspection générale des finances—better known as l'Inspection. Insiders usually refer to the grands corps by their shorter name: ‘le Conseil’, ‘l’Inspection’, ‘la Cour’.

Anyway, here's what prompted today’s essay: President Emmanuel Macron, the outgoing PM Édouard Philippe, and the new PM Jean Castex all attended ENA. The three of them also ranked close to the top of their respective classes. And by an extraordinary coincidence 😮

  • Macron joined l'Inspection

  • Philippe joined le Conseil

  • Castex joined la Cour

Which means this group of current top officials perfectly represents the three French grands corps that have been dominating both politics and business for...a very long time. (Out of 8 presidents of the French Fifth Republic, 5 came out of a grand corps.)

2/ You would think that this very narrow elite circle that’s been ruling the country for decades would only come from a privileged, Parisian background, but that’s not exactly true. In fact, many énarques, although blessed with high amounts of cultural and social capital, come from outside of Paris. There are many, many examples, including Macron himself (he’s from Picardy), but I’ll take myself as an example.

I’m as French as you can get. My mother’s parents were pharmacists in the rural Pays de Caux near Le Havre in Normandy. My father’s parents were from Paris and Brittany, respectively. My father even had the quintessential French experience of spending part of his childhood in Cameroon, then a French colony. (I don’t think being a child colonist was a great experience for him: he never went back and almost never talks about it.)

I don’t come from wealth, but I come from culture. My parents are musicians. There were many books at home. Concerts, exhibitions, art et essai movies, learning to play music were part of my upbringing. Growing up, I lived in several cities (always in the northern part of the country): Le Havre, Nantes, Brest, Strasbourg. Like every ambitious French person, I was fascinated by Paris, but I only arrived there at age 23. (We call it ‘monter à Paris’: whichever direction you come from, in France we always ascend to the capital city.)

Again, I only lived in the northern part of the country (as a norm, the Loire River is what separates France in two), but I think I know the whole of France quite well. Whereas the US is divided into 50 (rather large) states, France is divided into 100 (tiny) départements, and I don’t think there's more than 5 or 6 of them that I haven’t visited at least once, either for personal or professional reasons. (Training at ENA and then working at l’Inspection requires a lot of criss-crossing the country and interacting with local people. Quite a good education!)

3/ The French school system is based on a simple rule: ruthless selection of the best and the brightest at every stage, mostly through mathematics—a meritocratic discipline! Then, when continuing to get better at math doesn’t make sense except if you’re aiming for a Fields Medal, the process switches its focus to softer skills for which coming from a privileged background makes more of a difference: 

  • You have to master ‘culture générale’ (a broad mix of history, philosophy, social sciences, and literature) and foreign languages (because French schools suck at teaching those, you really need those summer camps and private lessons paid for by wealthy parents).

  • You need to be able to speak well in public (something that’s never taught in French schools) and to schmooze your boss (something that makes a difference if you want to rank high at ENA, as the training is mostly about working with demanding préfets and ambassadors).

In my case, I excelled in math and physics in high school, and went as far as the classes préparatoires, a highly competitive undergraduate program where students work day and night to prepare for very demanding exams that can open the doors to the most prestigious engineering schools. But I plateaued and missed out on my personal goal of being admitted to the École polytechnique. I was sick, exhausted, depressed, and decided to settle on a tier-2 school in Brittany called Telecom Bretagne, where I learned electronics, computer science, signal processing, and cognitive science. I later took my revenge and managed to move up, both in prestige and geography (remember ‘monter à Paris’?). I arrived at Sciences Po in Paris when I was 23, from there going to ENA, and then l’Inspection.

4/ I’m sharing these personal stories because they reveal a lot about France’s current shortcomings:

  • Mathematics is the key to climbing up the ladder. You could think that’s a good thing, but it’s effectively counter-productive: students work hard to excel at math not because they like the discipline or want a career in applied math (in computer science, for instance, or tech in general). They only make the detour through math because they want to reach the top of either government or the business world. When they’ve finally arrived, they forget it all in an instant. And so mathematics in France stays just that: a springboard to higher realms.

  • All paths lead to Paris. If you manage to arrive there (‘monter à Paris’), you mingle with the rest of the elite and enjoy a lifetime of rents that come from being part of that small world. There is an internal paradox as well: the French elite is diverse from a background perspective, but the elite life is concentrated in some specific neighborhoods in Paris. Once you arrive there, there’s no real incentive to move elsewhere, either functionally (by, say, leaving that world to found a startup) or geographically (moving back to the province or emigrating, as I did).

  • It’s still like Versailles. Because the elite world is so narrow, you can get exceptional rewards for appearing in the right salons, writing in the right outlets, playing golf with the right people. This definitely doesn’t inspire risk-taking. Plus, people work so hard to arrive there that they usually stop trying to learn new things as soon as they arrive. I usually say that most people in that world have kept the same ideas that they learned under competitive pressure at age 21-23, typically at Sciences Po when preparing for ENA’s competitive exams.

I personally kept on learning, but at first only because I was specifically interested in the US. Then I worked with entrepreneurs—which is the right thing to do if you want to learn new things everyday 🤓

5/ Another problem for France is its isolation from global discussions:

  • There was a time when France was a magnet for the global elite. For instance, when the local Jewish community was essentially thrown out of Egypt by Nasser’s regime after the Suez Crisis in 1956, most of them, French-speaking as they were, moved to France (which blessed France with fascinating figures such as Michel Cicurel, the Curiel brothers, and legendary banker André Lévy-Lang). Likewise, when left-wingers started to be repressed by the authoritarian regime in Greece, they moved to France (case in point: the great philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis).

  • France’s power of attraction has, however, all but disappeared. Most French-speaking countries are unlearning the language at a fast pace (I know for a fact that younger generations in Lebanon or Vietnam don’t speak French anymore, having abandoned it for English). Only West Africa and North Africa retain widespread use of the French language. But because of France’s colonial past it’s difficult for it to encourage cultural and business relationships with these countries, as I’ve explained in my Is Africa the Future of European Tech?

  • In general, the French language acts as a barrier keeping the French immune to ideas from the outside. There is a tiny group at the margins that looks for new ideas in books written in English. But for a book to be widely read in Paris, first you need to convince a local publisher to fund a French translation, and then you need to convince local journalists to cover it despite its lack of a French-speaking author. Needless to say, most global thinkers that are top-of-mind in London, New York, or Silicon Valley are completely unknown in Paris.

6/ It’s true that, despite all these shortcomings, France has been enjoying quite a ride for several centuries. I think it’s explained by three factors:

  • One is still true today: France’s incredible collection of geopolitical assets. France is a country that’s very easy to defend (except when Germany becomes exceedingly aggressive). It enjoys access to the English Channel in the North, the Mediterranean Sea in the South, and the Atlantic Ocean in the West. It has a diverse geography with mountains that protect it from Italy and Spain and many rivers that make trade easy. And the demography is good: we’re still having babies, unlike our neighbors such as Germany and Italy 👶

  • Another factor is that France has been blessed with a unique national trait: we French people excel at operating centralized systems at a large scale. And indeed, that’s what was required to prosper from the Industrial Revolution to the 20th century. The French came out on top in the age of steam and railways, the age of steel and heavy engineering, and the age of the automobile and mass production. (Here I’m referring to Carlota Perez’s book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital.)

  • Finally, France has used the European Union to its advantage. As I explained in Adieu to Old America, the EU is part of America’s legacy. But France’s leaders and diplomats have excelled at using it to compensate for French weaknesses since World War II. We’ve used the EU’s money to keep our agriculture afloat. We’ve used Germany’s monetary discipline to avoid being sanctioned by financial markets. We’ve even used Britain’s attachment to free market principles to deem cronyism illegal and make our economy more competitive!

7/ One of my favorite ideas about France is that we share many traits with China 🇨🇳

  • Should I mention cuisine? Spending time at a table eating good food and drinking is part of the national ethos in France just as it is in China.

  • We actually borrowed the approach to elite formation from the Chinese. It’s not a coincidence if the énarques are otherwise called ‘Mandarins’!

  • There’s a widespread feeling of respect for the government, whereby most French people expect it, not the business world, to solve critical problems.

Here’s the conclusion I draw from this parallel (from my The Rise of a New China):

China is a country where people respect the government and fully expect it to take charge. And that has historically been exactly the mindset here in France—although we’ve been shamed for decades by the Anglo-Saxons and have thus learned to rely on the government less. (Plus, at the same time the government has become less effective, which suggests that a vicious circle is at work here.)

8/ The way France selects and breeds its elite creates a uniquely French problem with money—which we’re paying for every day in the form of less success at building prosperous tech companies. As told in my most personal essay ever (Richard Descoings ou la radicalité—in French), I once spent an hour with the late director of my alma mater Sciences Po and listened as he explained why it was so hard to raise funds from the alumni network to fund our beloved university:

We aren’t the United States, where rich entrepreneurs make their fortunes far from the elite spheres, and who then try to buy the recognition of the Nation by funding foundations. What good is it, for a member of the French elite, to make such a sacrifice when they already have the money and everything else: the diplomas, the recognition, the influence?

In other words: In France, having money is almost always correlated with having attended the best schools, having grown the best personal network, and then getting the best positions in either the government or the business world (or one after the other, as is customary). And so why should French people take risks for the sake of making money when their future financial well-being is supposedly determined by the school they get into at age 21 or 22? This definitely doesn’t create the most supportive environment for the most talented people to consider building tech startups!

9/ To be fair, for quite some time the French elite has realized that France is losing ground and that we must catch up in the Entrepreneurial Age. Macron, this archetype of the French elite (excellent student from the provincial upper middle class turned énarque turned inspecteur des finances turned investment banker turned politician) is a testament to that: French people never like their elite more than when they embrace revolutionary values. Louis XVI’s own cousin, the Duke of Orléans, was celebrated for casting a vote in favor of his cousin’s beheading during the French Revolution.

But because it’s the elite, and because its formation system doesn’t reward getting interested in the new, we have a big problem:

  • Macron himself might be a forward-looking revolutionary, but he hasn’t found a way to surround himself with others who share his mindset. Most of the cabinet ministers, advisors, and MPs are the opposite of forward-looking—and, sadly, I must say that likely includes the new PM Jean Castex.

  • French officials think that because we have the best training in math worldwide, we might have a shot at excelling in building startups in fields like artificial intelligence. But scientific excellence rarely translates into entrepreneurial excellence.

  • France still likes to think of itself as one of the most advanced countries in the world, which in some ways is true. But, as I explained in Europe Is a Developing Economy, the current paradigm shift demands that we embrace the mindset of developing countries, not developed ones.

10/ What should France do? Politicians like short lists of simple measures, so let me offer one as a provisional conclusion:

  • It’s time for France to open up to the world again, which requires a very simple thing: having everyone become fluent in English (just what Lee Kuan Yew once made mandatory in Singapore). Alas that would require something that’s beyond imaginable: no longer dubbing every English-speaking movie or series into French, and having every French person listen to English and read English subtitles from a very young age! Don’t expect such a simple measure to be implemented anytime soon: what an insult it would be for the langue de Molière...

  • France being a mid-size country, it really needs its tech startups to expand beyond its borders. I don’t think that the state supporting upstart companies is necessarily a bad thing, but I think it should be focused on exactly that: concentrating resources on companies that have proven their product at a small scale, then helping them expand in other European countries, in Africa, and maybe in Asia as well as the US. This would turn the current system upside down, as today it rewards entrepreneurs who spend their time in Parisian salons.

  • Finally, let the interventionist state be an asset rather than a liability. Whatever France succeeded at in the past was because the state decided to race ahead of the business world and force everyone to follow up. If France wanted to make the most of the strength of its government and the respect it (still) inspires in most citizens, it would lead by example when it comes to radical innovation and become more like Estonia (with its world-class online public services and government-sponsored platforms) than whatever it is today.

🤓 Sadly many interesting thoughts written about France are only available in French. Meanwhile, I’ve been writing quite a lot about my country over recent years. But in addition, here are some great English-speaking writers that I’ll highlight in Friday’s reading list. 👇

  • Harriet Agnew is one of the journalists covering France for the Financial Times, and she’s had interesting coverage to contribute recently.

  • Simon Kuper is also with the Financial Times, and while not focused on France he happens to live in Paris and offers the best perspective you can imagine on the sociology of the French elite.

  • Noah Smith, a columnist for Bloomberg, has written about the elite’s embrace of revolutionary values recently—not specifically about France, but still.

  • Peter Zeihan, a geopolitical strategist, is unusually bullish about France (at least for an American), which makes his ideas even more worthy of consideration.

👉🏻 To discover their articles and many others related to today’s edition, become a paying subscriber! The package will be sent to subscribers only with the forthcoming Friday Reads edition 🤗

💻 My cofounder Alice Zagury published an article last week on just what it means to go from hosting events in real life to hosting everything 100% online.

The big lesson? Just because you know how to put on an amazing event when everyone’s in the same room, it doesn’t mean you don’t have a ton to learn when everyone’s sitting on their couch and participating through their computer screen: The Family, Moving On…line!

From French “grandes écoles” & Progress Studies (August 2019):

I only know of one French grande école that was founded without any direction provided by the state. In reaction to France’s humiliating military defeat against Prussia in 1870, Émile Boutmy, a fringe entrepreneur, decided to found what later became Sciences Po (of which I’m an alumnus). His view was that the old elite had failed because the academics that had educated them were backward-looking and narrow-minded. Boutmy thought that a new elite should rise, one that would look forward and embrace a multi-disciplinary approach to the world and solving problems. Sound familiar 😼? 

And in case you missed it:


From Normandy, France 🇫🇷

Nicolas