From grandes écoles to boardrooms, where the power lies in France

In the hands of very few oligarchs.  So much for egalitarianism and meritocracy.

A December review by Ernst & Young, for example, found that a mere 98 people control 43% of the voting power on the boards of the 40 companies comprising France’s leading CAC 40 stock index. Not only that, but this dominant corporate core is nearly 80% French — a lopsided percentage, given that nearly 40% of the capital in those businesses is owned by foreign investors.

The elite traditionally comes from the French version of Ivy Leagues/Oxbridge, its grandes écoles.

Various studies show that the student intake to the grandes écoles became more socially diverse in the 40 years after the second world war but the trend levelled off in the 1980s and may have even gone into reverse.

The social elevator has stopped and the middle classes have tightened their stranglehold on the institutions that guarantee a passage into France’s political and business elite.

Many blame the way it funnels graduates into elite circles that dominate French politic and business circles.

“It’s hardly a secret in France that in order to become an executive in a top French company, be asked to serve on a board or be tapped for a high civil-service post, you’ve got to have the right background, the right education, and have the powerful network of allies to help you get there,” says Marc Touati, deputy director of the Paris-based financial-services group Global Equities. “Most are well-trained and talented people, but there are lots of people like that who have no chance at those top spots. Like it or not, France is run by a caste.”

In a state obsessed with republicanism and the eradication the appearance of elitism from its surface, some go as far as equating a diploma from those institutions to ascension to a new aristocracy of status.

Others point to its ways the system excludes poorer students, particularly those from immigrants backgrounds, as one of the social friction behind France’s continuous search for a national identity.

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