But these ideals run up against the complexities of lived reality. France is one of the most multiethnic societies in the West, and just because it doesn’t formally recognize race doesn’t, naturally, mean that race, or racism, doesn’t exist. The upheavals over the killing of George Floyd have resonated in the country, generating public demonstrations against police brutality and debates about institutional racism and white privilege, about France’s history of slavery and colonialism, about whether statues of French historical figures complicit in slavery should be removed. In France, Black Lives Matter has broadened into a conversation about social and economic mobility, and access to housing, education, and jobs. Fewer than 1 percent of the CEOs of companies listed on the French stock exchange are of “non-European origin,” Le Monde recently reported.
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That inevitably leads back to France’s grandes écoles, prestigious public universities such as Sciences Po that are at the heart of the tensions between the country’s universalist meritocratic ideals and the schools’ creation of a self-perpetuating, predominantly white elite that excludes many students from the provinces and France’s banlieues, suburbs with high concentrations of immigrant communities.
France’s grandes écoles are far more powerful than the Ivy League, or even Britain’s Oxford and Cambridge. They were founded as free, publicly funded postgraduate schools designed to train the functionaries who would run France, and for years they have had a solid monopoly on all French systems of power, educating presidents, lawmakers, and the heads of major state institutions and corporations. (There are hundreds of grandes écoles, with different specialties and levels of selectivity. The École Polytechnique, for instance, which trains engineers, is run by the Ministry of Defense.)
In theory, access to the grandes écoles is based on an entrance exam for which anyone can apply. In practice, the test is so difficult that most aspiring students spend several years studying for it in special preparatory schools, many of which are private and costly by French standards. As a result, the majority of students who gain entrance come from a handful of the country’s best high schools and preparatory programs. Even the gatekeepers have gatekeepers.
The entrance exams themselves are not simply written affairs or multiple-choice tests, but involve oral exams in which a faculty jury asks prospective students to speak with fluency on a range of topics—more like the bar exam than the SAT. The mise-en-scène, or stagecraft, is designed “to produce deference, respect, social distance between the student and the institution,” and thus produces inequality, Annabelle Allouch, a sociology professor at the University of Picardie Jules Verne in Amiens and Sciences Po, and the author of a book on the exams, told me. “The grandes écoles are invested in this kind of magic thinking that they are superior.” Students from ethnic minorities in France have “internalized the fact that discourse about social class is legitimate and the discourse about race is illegitimate,” she added.