When I first took the Paris Metro's line 4 to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés stop, I expected to arrive in a place similar in influence to England’s Oxford and Cambridge. French presidential candidates Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande once must have had the same feeling, as they were walking from the Metro, along the fancy Boulevard Saint-Germain. Their destination was one of France’s most famous streets, la rue Saint Guillaume, where the famed Institute of Political Studies, Sciences Po Paris, has its home.
When heading there, they knew that their future could not be brighter. They knew that they had entered a school that paves the way into France’s top positions. They knew that they would see most of their fellows again after graduation, regularly. They were aware that their reunions wouldn’t be typical student reunions, but reencounters in their countries highest political institutions. After all, Sciences Po Paris is the rather direct and pretty much the only way to even stand a chance at passing the entrance examination to make it into many French parents’ dream school for their offspring, la École nationale d'administration, affectionately abbreviated as ENA. And it is almost only to former students of ENA – the ‘enarques’ - that top positions of France’s public life are awarded to. Whichever candidate secures the presidency tonight, he will remain faithful to that tradition.
Yes, only one of the two presidential candidates facing each other today made it from Sciences Po into the talent hotbed that is France’s national school of administration. That one is however not the one you’d expect to have made it. It's not the one so often accused for being too elitist. No, it’s the one who advocates so loudly that he wants to bring about change to France, even intends to reform the French elite’s embosomed talent foundry.
Rumour has it that Sarkozy already failed out of the prestigious prep school that Sciences Po is. That never kept him from choosing his ministers and top advisors from amongst the graduates of Sciences Po and ENA. Hollande himself went through the entirety of Sciences Po and ENA. The Socialist Party’s candidate not only met much of France’s current day’s political elite at the two schools, but also his former wife Ségolène Royal. He knows former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin through it, has studied with members of Sarkozy's government, such as Minister of Foreign Affairs Alain Juppé, and Minister of the Interior Claude Guéant. His campaign manager Pierre Moscovici went to Sciences Po with him.
While Hollande’s political ideas may bear the potential of bringing about change, he will have a hard time in achieving a comparable diversification in his government. The members and himself will likely not be less enarquic and elitist than Sarkozy’s government used to be.
Just like in Sarkozy’s UMP, many of the Parti Socialiste’s top-tiers once took the same way on the Boulevard Saint-Germain to get to Sciences Po. They have been taught within a small circle of select and mostly privileged students, followed the same curricula and had to live up to the same academic requirements. At the end of their Sciences Po days, they will have prepared for the same rigorous exam to continue their studies at the ENA. They won’t only have studied alongside each other, and competed for being the top of their class, but will also have feasted away more than just one night together.
Pierre Bordieu once discerned a domination of France’s political landscape by a self-perpetuating elite of the wealthy and white. Today will prove him right once again. Even if Hollande manages to win the elections, full scale change going as far as naming a government in which the large majority has been educated outside of France’s elite circle of ENA and the Institutes of Politics, will likely not be achieved just yet.