Shutting Down ENA & Government in the Entrepreneurial Age

European Straits #118

Dear all,

The roof and spire of Notre-Dame burnt down a little more than one week ago. That same night, Emmanuel Macron had planned to address the nation in a televised speech concluding the “Grand débat”—the series of townhall meetings and online contributions that was designed as the remedy to the Gilets jaunes crisis. Needless to say, the speech was postponed. It’s now set to happen this Thursday.

In the meantime, there has been much speculation about what was in the speech. According to journalists, one of the most resounding proposals was the shutting down of the Ecole nationale d’administration—the prestigious, selective school, known by its French initials of ‘ENA’, that ambitious French people must go through to access the most senior positions in government.

To my surprise, getting rid of ENA is a topic that resonates far beyond French borders. The Financial Times asked me to contribute an op-ed to offer my point of view as an alumnus ➡️ Closing the Ena government school will not change an elitist culture. Below my article there are dozens and dozens of rather good and informed comments. And Matt Clifford, of Entrepreneur First, discussed it in his newsletter Thoughts in Between—which you can read (and subscribe to) here: Institutional decline and institutional design.

I wanted to use this issue to share a few more thoughts about ENA and discuss what could replace it in the Entrepreneurial Age.

Shutting down ENA

I briefly discussed my government career in a paragraph of my book Hedge. Let me quote it as an introduction.

“I was once drawn to working for the government because I wanted to make a difference in the world. It helped that in France becoming a senior civil servant is still the opportunistic dream of many ambitious students. Entering such spheres is the French equivalent to joining the ‘Oxbridge’ establishment in the UK or receiving an Ivy League education in the US. The state grand corps I joined, the Inspection générale des finances, is an exclusive society of about 250 living souls which in the last few decades has given France two presidents (including Emmanuel Macron, who was once a colleague of mine), several prime ministers, and many top executives in France’s largest corporations. But there was also a more altruistic reason for my choosing that path: in the past century, government came to be seen as a mighty force you needed to harness in order to solve critical problems.”

Now, it was hard to get there. I came from an educated family: my parents were artists and intellectuals. But I had absolutely no connection to the exclusive world of top civil servants. I grew up in the province (that is, outside the Paris region—in Le Havre, Nantes, and then Brest) and only arrived in Paris at age 23, in 2000. The first énarque I ever met, a brilliant and inspiring lady named Hayet Zeggar, was one of my teachers that year at Sciences Po. Even though I knew about ENA from the newspapers and books, I was late to the game and few people would have bet on me ever going there: I had too much to catch up on (law, economics, culture générale, and the mindset).

Yet I succeeded anyway, getting there after finishing a tier-2 engineering school (Telecom Bretagne) and then Sciences Po. And due to this being my personal context, I never saw ENA as only for the privileged. Rather, it was an exclusive club indeed—but one to which I, an outsider, could gain membership through hard work and dedication.

By contrast, some of my classmates were insiders, coming from well-connected families, having been educated in the most prestigious Parisian high schools and then having graduated from the country’s best engineering and business schools. But I never saw them as a problem or a threat. Rather, their being at ENA was reassuring proof that this was the place to be. All that hard work had not been in vain if these people were pursuing the same goal as me! Also, it helped that I outperformed most of them in the final exams: I had really no reason to defer to them 🙃.

And ENA wasn't just a gathering place for people who had all lived the same lives. Because you can get there through different streams, you’ll find people of all ages: young, inexperienced graduates mingle with older, seasoned civil servants going back to school to move up the ranks. There are also various disciplinary backgrounds, from STEM to law to business to literature. And even if a large group had attended Sciences Po in Paris prior to heading to ENA, students were effectively from all over the country, with only a minority having grown up in the capital city.

As I mentioned in my op-ed, I was struck by the general lack of interest for what was actually taught at ENA. That’s because many students mostly care about their final class rankings, which will determine future career paths. But here’s the secret for succeeding at ENA: you must be passionate about government and public administration. If you’re not, and you’re only there for the signal, you’ll get bored at some point and you’ll miss some key insights that are needed to obtain good grades. My being genuinely interested made me a high-ranking student. Others, who couldn’t care less about civil service, ended up less lucky—and bitter about the institution.

Overall I have good memories of my time at ENA. I learned a lot, had experiences I would never have imagined (like working for an entire semester for the French ambassador in post-Soviet Vilnius, Lithuania), made very good friends, and was happy and honored to then join the Inspection générale des finances, where I spent 5+ rewarding and fascinating years working on complex policy matters.

That being said I'm not sure ENA is the right institution for our time. Most of the reasons are in my op-ed. But here’s an overview.

First, because access is granted after highly selective exams, ENA tends to attract people that excel at conformity more than at imagination. There are many exceptions of course, but it’s a systemic problem. For all the criticizing of ENA by France’s current leaders, most of them, including our President and our Prime Minister, attended the school. And I’m afraid it shows: there are no innovative ideas in sight at the top of the French government. I’m also an énarque, but what I usually explain is that I was saved by entrepreneurs: working with them on a daily basis moves you from conformity to imagination.

Second, graduating from ENA doesn’t command access to the French elite anymore. The state is not as important in the economy. I’ve seen many colleagues, including at the well-connected Inspection, struggling to get hired in the private sector. Being an énarque doesn’t bring as much value as it once did. This is why I now tend to believe my cofounder Oussama Ammar when he says that I could be where I am today without being an énarque and an inspecteur des finances. And I tend to discourage young people from considering ENA as an option. It’s too much of your life dedicated to pursuing a hard-to-attain goal that doesn’t necessarily translate into a good career anymore.

Finally, I think that moving ENA to Strasbourg (a stupid idea once advocated as the way to get the school closer to the ‘real’ country) has considerably weakened the institution. It’s not just that it has deprived it of the best practitioners of public policy, who can’t teach at the school anymore because most of them are based in Paris. It’s also that being in Strasbourg makes it harder to attract more diverse profiles. If you're from the province and that is not Strasbourg or Nancy, it's more of a personal sacrifice to attend ENA now than when it was located in Paris. Basically, if you're married, be prepared for an early divorce because your spouse staying back in Rouen, Bordeaux or Brest will probably not wait for you to finish the demanding 2-year training. Paris is much closer to those cities (the French train network is centered around the capital city) and would make it easier for the many students that have loved ones waiting for them at home.

To conclude, I’d add two things:

  • Back in 1945, the year ENA was created, the French Fordist economy could only be rebuilt by the largest Fordist organization of all: the state. And so it was logical to design an institution to attract the best and the brightest to the helm of that organization. We can say énarques did a great job for decades. But now we’re not in the Fordist Age anymore—we’re in the Entrepreneurial Age. And as discussed in Chapter 9 of Hedge, the state might not be the organization best positioned to save the economy anymore. The challenge today, then, may not be to attract the best and the brightest into the civil service, but rather to lead them to embrace entrepreneurship. And that’s what we’re working on at The Family 🤗.

  • Finally, implementing radical change is part dark arts, but it’s also part science—one that has been best explained by the likes of . And what does the Harvard professor suggest to those who want to replace something old with something new? The secret is that you should never start by dismantling the old. Rather, you should build the new at the margins while still relying on the old. And when the new grows up and eventually becomes larger (and, hopefully, more relevant) than the old, it’s time to ditch the latter (the exhausted legacy organization) and bet everything on the former (the fast-growing startup).

And this is what Emmanuel Macron should announce on Thursday: not that he’s shutting down ENA, but that he’s launching something new and different at the margins, in the hopes that it will someday be large, robust, and relevant enough to replace ENA as the preferred way of training the French elite.

By the way, those of you who read French 🇫🇷 can have a look at an article I wrote in 2015: a tribute to the late Richard Descoings and a recollection of my years at Sciences Po, where he was the director then. I think it’s a proper rendering of the spirit I felt while I was working hard at becoming an énarque—and of the change within the French elite at the time: Richard Descoings ou la radicalité.

🇸🇬 I participated in a fintech panel when in Singapore on who will emerge as the winners of the disruption game; you can check out my discussion with Professor David Lee of the Singapore University of Social Sciences, and others here: Disruption, Fintech and Innovation: Who will be the winners?

🇺🇸 While in the Bay Area, I had a great discussion with Rey Faustino of One Degree and Autumn McDonald of New America about the definition of our social safety net. It was written up by New America here: What Will Be There When You Fall?: The Future of our Safety Net.

🎫 Our event managers put on multiple events per week across Europe; my colleague Vladimir Oustinov laid out all the questions you should be asking to organize an event that really generates value: The guide to organizing an event for your startup.

🇫🇷 My cofounder Alice Zagury talks about how much value can be created by being in a room with the right people, asking the right questions—which is the foundation of our new program, Constellations, a premium update of our 2013-2015 conference series Les Barbares attaquent: Constellations : The Family ouvre ses portes aux Grands groupes, ETI et PME !

🛫 The head of our Paris office, Erika Batista, spends lots of time creating connections between Silicon Valley and Europe, which gives her a strong perspective on why startups in Paris are really becoming a great career option for experienced tech talents: Why moving to Paris should be your next career move.

In the wake of the discussion about shutting down ENA, here are a few articles about a more entrepreneurial approach at government:

Warm regards (from Paris, France),

Nicolas