Talking point: Is France really a meritocracy?

Equality is a pillar of French culture - columnist Nick Inman explores whether the brightest talent can always rise to the top

‘France claims to be an egalitarian, meritocratic society in which achievement is on the basis of brains and capacity, not breeding’

I asked our chimney sweep how his daughter was doing. “She’s happy,” he replied. “She has a job in a supermarket.”

It got me wondering. I hope she is doing exactly what she wants, but supposing she has other goals. Would she be able to achieve them? Or does success in France depend on family circumstances?

Can anyone succeed in France?

This country claims to be an egalitarian, meritocratic society in which achievement is on the basis of brains and capacity, not breeding.

Everyone is expected to be able to reach their potential within society. That is the purpose of the education system. The brightest talent rises to the top and the country is run by the crème de la crème who have got where they are, not thanks to their lineage but because of their ability.

This is both true and not true. Anyone who flies through their baccalauréat can go on to higher things.

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‘The playing field is not perfectly level’

If an ordinary university is too tame, there is always a grande école. These prestigious schools take the best candidates, whatever their background, and produce the supercharged cadres who run the country.

“My boss is a graduate of a grande école,” a friend told me. “He is so intelligent he is like a man with two brains.”

“So,” I summarised, “if someone in France is exceptionally clever, there is nothing to prevent her from becoming a government minister?”

“Yes and no,” said my friend. “There is notional equality of opportunity but then there is reality. The playing field is not perfectly level. Not everyone has the same educational opportunities.”

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There are sociologists who claim that pre-school education alone determines adult outcomes.

All teachers know how much parental expectations and involvement matter, but so do practical considerations: time and space to do homework. A gifted child in a crowded house with nowhere quiet to study might still fall behind.

Most teachers are also aware that school favours a particular type of intelligence: learning the code required to pass exams.

The rich can play the system by giving their children private lessons – for years if necessary – so they sit each exam with an inbuilt advantage.

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Let us allow our hypothetical gifted child to come from a supportive family and to be so bright she does not need tutoring. She does well at baccalauréat and enters higher education, but then discrimination kicks in again.

The rich can choose to send their children to private establishments; the poorer student has to go down the public route.

And there might be a geographical inequality at play: if she does not live in Paris, or near one of the best establishments, she has to live away from home, which incurs expenses. The costs of degrees and a master’s soon add up.

The burden placed on parents

There is financial aid for poor families, but every grant is means-tested and it is possible for a brilliant student to come from a family just above the threshold and so to miss out.

Applying for grants also requires skills of literacy and numeracy to meet the demands of bureaucracies, and if parents are not confident with the paperwork, it can be easy for them to give up.

Even if the student does get a grant, it will not cover every expense and the family will still have to stump up for extras, including accommodation, travel, stationery and sustenance.

The financial burden might cause them to give up paying for education that will only produce a return years down the line.

To get around this, some students do evening jobs but this can render them too exhausted to perform well.

A meritocratic country in which everyone gets a chance and the right people are in charge?

There are routes to the top for determined people from lowly backgrounds but the better-off the family, the more chance its offspring has to make the big time. The elite set the rules to reproduce the elite.

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