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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Les Grandes Ecoles

This Times article on the elite world of French business has some interesting facts about Ecole Polytechnique and Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA). In physics, we typically encounter graduates of Ecole Normale Superieure ("normaliens"), which boasts 9 Fields Medalists and at least 8 Nobel Laureates in physics. 15 years ago a normalien friend complained to me that the ENArques were getting the upper hand, but it appears from the article the polytechniciens are hanging tough! The greatest polytechnicien of all time might be Poincare, but then again there are also Cauchy and Ampere and Poisson and Navier...

An earlier post on Les Grandes Ecoles. I must say, these schools, with their strictly meritocratic admissions policies, sound a lot more like Caltech than like Harvard.

NYTimes: ...AT least half of France’s 40 largest companies are run by graduates of just two schools, the École Polytechnique, which trains the country’s top engineers, and ENA, the national school of administration. That’s especially remarkable given that the two schools together produce only about 600 graduates a year, compared with a graduating class of 1,700 at Harvard.

...Rather than a rigid class system, it was Mr. Fourtou’s and Mr. Bébéar’s admission into the École Polytechnique that assured their place in the elite. And that is one of the great ironies of the French establishment: while it enjoys the privileges associated with the elites of the United States, entry is, if anything, much more rigorously meritocratic, based on exams and ever-narrowing selection from an early age.

Indeed, getting into Harvard, which accepted 9 percent of its applicants last year, is a breeze compared with getting into the École Polytechnique.

Out of 130,000 students who focus on math and science in French high schools each year, roughly 15 percent do well enough on their exams to qualify for the two- to three-year preparation course required by the elite universities. Of those who make it through that, 5,000 apply to École Polytechnique, which is commonly called simply “X,” and just 400 are admitted from France.

Admission is based strictly on exam grades; there isn’t even an essay requirement or interview. And there are no legacy admissions, sports scholarships or other American-style shortcuts for getting into X.

“You can be the president’s nephew and it won’t help you get in,” says Bernard Oppetit, a 1978 graduate of X who later worked for BNP Paribas before starting Centaurus Capital, a London investment fund with $4 billion under management.

The École Polytechnique was founded in 1794, during the French Revolution, to train the country’s military engineers, and it officially remains under the umbrella of the French ministry of defense. Not only is the school free, but students also receive a stipend from the government to cover their expenses.

“We call it l’élitisme démocratique,” says Pierre Tapie, dean of Essec, a leading French business school. “These are places where you meet extraordinary people who are there because they worked hard and are among the most brilliant of a generation.”

Although the school teaches high-end fare like physics, engineering, and computer sciences, its broader goal is to create a leadership cadre that shares an ordered, prioritized view of the world, says Xavier Michel, the president of the École Polytechnique and an active-duty general in the French armed forces.

In France, this is known as the Cartesian system, after the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, and Mr. Michel says the school encourages its students “to modelize” the world. And when they eventually become chief executives, he says, “they understand what are the capabilities of their companies. They understand what they can do and what they can’t do.”

Until, of course, models run off the rails — as they so often do in the business and financial worlds, regardless of what country devises them.

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