France Is Officially Color-Blind. Reality Isn’t.

The country’s prestigious grandes écoles illustrate the gulf between its universal ideals and its day-to-day life.

An illustration of a graduate cap colored with the French flag
Adam Maida

Nearly 20 years ago, one of France’s most prestigious schools, Sciences Po, took what was then seen as a bold step: It became the first elite French university to attempt to diversify its student body. The program is small, with only about 1,000 graduates in total since its inception, but has generally been regarded as successful, offering scholarships to many who would not otherwise have had access.

Its nature, though, reveals something significant about France: The program is not defined in terms of race, but entirely by socioeconomics and geography. Sciences Po—officially l’Institut d’études politiques de Paris—makes a point of recruiting a percentage of its students from high schools in areas that are economically disadvantaged. Though the point of the program is to diversify the school’s intake, it does not specifically target ethnic minorities. That is because, officially at least, France is color-blind.

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, the ancien régime in which lives were entirely circumscribed by economic capacity inherited at birth (peasants, landowners, aristocrats, clergy) was replaced with the universal category of citizen. France reinforced its commitment to its universal ideals after the Second World War, during which the Vichy regime had singled out Jews for deportation. And so today, unlike the United States, where the census tracks race, France does not formally keep statistics about race or religion, recognizing only two categories of people: citizens and immigrants.

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.

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.

So how do you create an elite that reflects the country without knowing the country’s composition? How do you recognize, let alone compensate for the fact, that not all students have equal access to educational opportunities, while still adhering to the ideal that the state acknowledges individuals for their potential and merit, not their race or ethnicity? And, when it comes down to it, do the grandes écoles really want to change?

At Sciences Po, the program to recruit a broader range of students involves encouraging teachers at more than 100 high schools in economically underperforming areas across France to have their best students apply. The admissions process is based on written and oral entrance exams, but also takes the student’s education and background into consideration.

Despite efforts at other grandes écoles, the Sciences Po program remains something of an outlier. The École Nationale d’Administration—the most prestigious of the grandes écoles—offers a scholarship program to help bright students and graduates from lower-income backgrounds prepare for its entrance exam. The program is taught by ENA graduates, with one-on-one coaching and a special focus on public speaking and debate skills required to pass the oral exam. But the program, which began in 2009 and is known as CP’ENA, has only about 36 slots a year and has trained 138 students overall, offering a total of €220,000, or about $250,000, a year in state support. “It’s really very little,” David Foltz, a graduate of CP’ENA and ENA who now works in the interior ministry, told me.

ENA, which has about 100 graduates a year, has itself become so emblematic of the French elite and its disconnect from the rest of the country that last year President Emmanuel Macron proposed shutting it down. Macron is an ENA graduate, as are three of his recent predecessors and the most recent prime ministers. Macron made his proposal at a moment of anti-elitist fervor, when months of protests by the Yellow Vest movement had taken direct aim at him and more broadly called attention to France’s inequality of income and access to state services. This year, the government announced that it wouldn’t shut ENA down but would change it, possibly merging it with other schools that train functionaries, and keeping its name.

France has made other attempts to develop more inclusion in higher education, yet has skirted the issue of race throughout. In 2014, it started a program in which students who have placed in the top 10 percent in their high-school exams can apply to top French universities and preparatory programs—a system inspired by similar efforts in Texas and California, according to Patrick Weil, who helped design the French program and teaches at Yale Law School and Pantheon-Sorbonne University in Paris. Weil is an immigration historian and, like many French intellectuals, is adamant that a student’s race and religion not be a factor in admissions, fearful that the compilation of racial or religious statistics could be used for the wrong reasons. “Do you think when the Front National wants to count the number of Muslim students, they want to do it to promote them?” he said, using the previous name of Marine Le Pen’s far-right party.

The problem, in Weil’s view, is one of class, rather than race or ethnicity—only wealthier students have the educational training and the means to spend years in the preparatory schools. “It’s the children of the elite reproducing itself,” he told me. “We have to target all the working class—the children of farmers, people from every area, white and people of color. It’s very important to give justice to all social classes and also to people from French overseas territories, who are also French.”

But to many, including a younger generation of French activists, there’s no way to have these conversations without talking about race. Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist and filmmaker who has called out what she sees as institutionalized racism in France, told me she doesn’t really see much progress from the grandes écoles, despite Sciences Po’s program. “It doesn’t really change the figures, the picture of the classrooms,” Diallo said. “I think it’s been a way to avoid race, because there haven’t been major changes.”

Though Macron’s cabinet is overwhelmingly white, following a recent cabinet reshuffle, his new equality minister is Black, and his former government spokesperson, Sibeth Ndiaye, was born in Senegal and came to France as a teenager. After tens of thousands took to the streets in France’s answer to Black Lives Matter protests, Ndiaye, as government spokesperson, wrote in an opinion piece in Le Monde that it was time to “break the taboo” about collecting statistics on race, so France could have a more honest conversation about the discrimination faced by people of color.

Sooner or later, the conversation has to circle back to the elite universities. Until France can figure out how to grant a broader range of students access to the grandes écoles, the country’s government and institutions won’t reflect its population. And it’s hard to imagine how a solution is possible without acknowledging race.

Allouch, for her part, is hopeful that things will change. “I think we’re witnessing a sort of #MeToo of race,” she told me. Topics that a few years ago were considered niche issues in France—feminism, gender theory, homosexuality—have become part of a more public discourse. “We’re going to arrive at a tipping point,” she said, “where the question of race will no longer be considered a taboo.”