Les Produits des Grandes Écoles

First this story:

Two Air France managers have had their shirts torn as they were forced to flee a meeting on job cuts by angry workers.

Human resources manager Xavier Broseta and senior official Pierre Plissonnier had to clamber over a fence, while several others were injured.

The men were taking part in talks about plans for 2,900 job losses when hundreds of workers stormed into Air France headquarters at Roissy.

This scene couldn’t be more French if it had a baguette, beret, and a mistress.  Indeed, it wouldn’t be a summer in France if petulant farmers weren’t burning lorry-loads of sheep on the motorway or flinging cowshit at government buildings, and SNCF, Air France, and the ferry operators not leaving thousands of people stranded because the staff have walked out over proposals to extend the retirement age beyond 47 years old.

For a long time I thought that the attitude of the French workers was one of fecklessness and ineptitude, and that the Unions were determined to feather their own nests at the expense of the next generation who simply cannot get a job.  And to be honest, there is probably a lot of truth in that: there is a lot of fecklessness and ineptitude among French workers (go and visit a Prefecture, for example), and without a doubt the Unions include in their leadership members of the militant, teenage Trot brigades who haven’t yet realised the Cold War is over and their side lost.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story, and neither does this BBC article which attempts to provide some background to the initial story.

Thanks to an accident of childhood that saw me grow up speaking French for a while, some years ago I found myself seconded into a French company, one of the giant corporations whose name most of you will know.  I spent over a year living in France on this assignment, and then not long afterwards was working in the offices of another large French corporation on a project, albeit not in France.  So I got a good look at how French companies are run and, asking around, I don’t think it’s much different in the other large French companies (or indeed the government, if we charitably assume they are different things).

For all what the history books show, the French never actually had a Revolution.  It is possible to go to Russia, and live there for years, and never see a trace of the old aristocracy in the state institutions or companies.  There is a definite hierarchy in place, but it is not one based on class.  In France, by contrast, it doesn’t take one long to figure out that the entire government and major corporations are dominated by an elite consisting of the old French aristocratic families (take a look at the names, and see how many have de in them) and the cream of the crop of the French grandes écoles:

The grandes écoles of France are higher education establishments outside the main framework of the French university system…They have historically produced many if not most of France’s high-ranking civil servants, politicians and executives, as well as many big businessmen, scientists, writers and philosophers.

Now you don’t need to be from an aristocratic family to enter one of the grandes écoles, but if you are from an aristocratic family then the chances of you being shepherded in are very high.  So far, so Oxbridge.

What then happens is those finishing top of the class in the grandes écoles are drafted into the major French corporations and civil service where, if they show they are sufficiently “on message”, they are put on a fast-track career path which sees them take very senior positions before they have had a chance to know what the fuck they’re doing.  Naturally, the ones doing the pushing of these protégés are those who also came from the grandes écoles and enjoyed the same privileged treatment themselves.  What matters here is the person’s background: the school they went to, the grades they got, and the family they are from.  Experience, competence, personability, and other skills don’t matter a jot.  In the eyes of the French elite, they are so very clever that they can solve any problem, handle any task, and manage any situation simply by virtue of having proven themselves in (usually maths-heavy) exams when they were in their 20s.

So confident are they of the abilities of themselves and their classmates that they think nothing of shuffling between various high-level positions in government and business, often arriving in an area in which they have almost no experience.  Take Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanné, for example:

At 20, he entered the École Polytechnique where he graduated with an engineer degree, holding the 11th spot in the degree ranking.

Note it is mentioned where he came in the class rankings.  This is important in France.

Patrick Pouyanné started his career in 1989 at the French ministry of industry. In 1993, he became the technical advisor of Édouard Balladur, the French first minister at the time. In 1995, he became technical advisor for environment and industry, and chief of staff of François Fillon right after at the Information Technology and Space Minister from 1995 to 1996. In January 1997, he joined the petroleum company Elf as general secretary for the Angolan subsidiary.

So having been a political advisor all his post-graduate career, and knowing nothing outside of government, he lands a very senior position in what was probably Elf’s most important subsidiary at age 34.

Contrast this with the CV of ExxonMobil’s Rex Tillerson:

He received a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Texas at Austin in 1975…Tillerson joined The Exxon Company, US, in 1975 as an engineer. He held various positions with Exxon, domestically and internationally. In 1995, he became president of Exxon Yemen Inc. and Esso Exploration and Production Khorat Inc.

It took Tillerson 20 years of working his way up from engineer before he took his first senior management position at age 43.

This parachuting of very bright but inexperienced young elites into senior positions is rife in France, and when I was there I saw plenty of examples of high-flyers arriving from wholly unrelated industries – or government – and being thrown into senior positions where they were completely out of their depth.  The assumption was always that they are clever enough to be able to understand everything and make all the right decisions.  Having been told from an early age that they are bright, brilliant, and the best and not knowing any better, the individuals tend to even believe it themselves.  Short on confidence they are not.

In effect, France’s major corporations often seem more like an employment vehicle for the graduates of their grandes écoles than commercial enterprises.  And as with the government and the electorate, stuffing the upper echelons full of well-connected elites results in a huge disconnect between the management and the workers.  For it is largely true that, no matter how hard one works and how brilliant one is, you will never surpass the chosen few from the grandes écoles in terms of promotion and prestige.  For sure, many try, and considerable efforts are made by the company management to convince the ordinary folk that if they show sufficient compliance, obedience, and work themselves to death they will be admitted to the hallowed ranks of the chosen few.  But in reality, they are being sold an absolute lie.

I likened the situation in the company I worked in to the British colonial powers in India.  The British were the rulers, and the Indians were the subjects.  No matter how good an Indian was at his job, and how much he had demonstrated his loyalty, he was never going to be given the job that was earmarked for the 25 year old son of a British MP.  And nor would a British administrator listen to an Indian if there was a British chap nearby saying something different.

Eventually the Indians got fed up with this and kicked the British out.  What we are seeing in France is the result of workers having realised that they are being treated like second-class citizens in the workplace by a small bunch of privileged elites who have been parachuted into management positions for which they are wholly unsuitable, and have decided that they need to get aggressive if they are to have any share of the spoils.  No wonder France has militant Unions that demand ever-increasing benefits for their members when the ruling elites treat them with such contempt.  They’d be pretty foolish to rely on the good nature of this bunch to take care of them: they’d end up with nothing.

Whereas I think this peculiar French system of corporate management might have worked for a while (the British approach to India brought undeniable benefits as well, for a time), my guess is the French elites are finding it harder and harder to compete in a globalised world where nobody cares which school you went to and everyone worth doing business with stubbornly insists that it takes place in English.  The grandes écoles system, while guaranteeing a job for life in France, probably does not prepare its graduates well for life outside of a French bubble.  This reality, coupled with the inevitable poor decisions of successive generations of managers who all came from the same system, has meant the French corporations are struggling.

As with any elite in any country, accountability on their part has been non-existent and resignations rare.  Instead, we hear the refrain of embattled dictators everywhere: I’m still the man for the job!  Meanwhile, these same individuals are now telling the workforce that cutting thousands of jobs is necessary to bring the companies back to profitability.  Now whether or not job cuts are necessary, and I am sure that they are, who from the grandes écoles that have presided over this situation are going to take responsibility?

Nobody, it seems.  No wonder the workers are pissed off.  I don’t work in the airline industry so I don’t know if the Air France CEO has made the same knuckle-headed decisions his counterparts in the oil industry make with alarming regularity, but this is his CV:  graduated from a grande école in 1980, did a further 3 years in academia, worked in government until 1995 and then joined Air France as director of management control and audit at Air France Europe aged 39.  Nice!

France is not unique in having a cosy, well-connected, and interchangeable elite enjoying a merry-go-round of high-profile positions in government and business which come with generous packages but seemingly no accountability.  But the degree to which it is beholden to this system is sending the country and its industries down the pan, fast.  I suspect it is too entrenched, and too late, to do anything about it now.

“But I came top in calculus at  l’Ecole Nationale d’Administration!”


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