Note Added (2022): Wikipedia has a long entry on this topic.
The American intellectual elite are endlessly fascinated by the French Grandes Ecoles, which employ a rigorous examination system for admissions. See example below from today's NY Times.
In the past I'd read that the British and French based their civil service and educational examination systems on the much older Chinese model, but was not sure to what extent it is true. See here for an interesting discussion.
... Brunetiere believed that French education was really based on the Chinese system of competitive literary examinations, and that the idea of a civil service recruited by competitive examinations undoubtedly owed its origins to the Chinese system which was popularized in France by the philosophers, especially Voltaire. This definite conclusion that the French civil service examination system came from China is adopted by several authors ...Summary of the case of Britain and colonial India can be found here. Amusingly, 19th century British writers opposed to the new system of exams referred to it as "... an adopted Chinese culture" (p. 304-305).
NYTimes: ... Born out of the French Enlightenment, the grandes écoles have long been the cradle of the governing class. “Normaliens” (graduates from École Normal Supérieure, whose 12 Nobel laureates include Henri Bergson and Jean-Paul Sartre), “Gadzarts” (from École Nationale Supérieure d’Arts et Métiers, like Jean-Lou Chameau, president of the California Institute of Technology), “X-iens” (from École Polytechnique, including the physicist Sadi Carnot, the philosopher Auguste Comte and the mathematician Benoît B. Mandelbrot), and “Enarques” (from École National d’Administration, including almost all recent prime ministers) occupy a place in French national life similar to Oxbridge graduates in England or the Ivy League in the United States.
Internationally, however, these institutions have far less clout than their Anglo-American counterparts.
... The grandes écoles run along very different lines. Admission is selective, with candidates generally required to complete a grueling two-year preparatory course. This “prépa” includes intensive study in mathematics, economics, philosophy and literature, plus at least two foreign languages. Of 1,079 candidates who took the entrance exam for the business school HEC in 2009, only 50 were offered places, and most of those already held master’s degrees from other institutions. The competition for science places is even tougher.
... Yet he, too, alluded to the new reality of global competition: “When I was a student we spoke of ‘le défi américain’ — the American challenge. Now we speak of ‘le défi asiatique’ — the challenge from Asia.”
How will France face this challenge? Dr. Tapie pointed out that while France “has only 1 percent of the world’s population, we make up 33 percent of Fields medalists,” the mathematics equivalent of Nobel laureates.
It was Cédric Villani, a 37-year-old professor at Lyon who won the 2010 Fields Medal, who gave the most spirited reply to France’s critics. Calling himself “a pure product of the French system,” Mr. Villani, a Normalien who has often taught in the United States, said that while American academic salaries were higher “and it’s easier to make big projects,” France also has particular strengths: “Our tradition, our quality of life, our social cohesion. My big problem in Princeton was finding a place to buy a decent cheese.”