Affirmative Action In France: Ideology Doesn't Matter
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The French have always had an ideological aversion to affirmative action, but, in the long run, ideology doesn’t much matter, so the French government is imposing quotas on its elite virtually free tuition public colleges. The funny thing is that it’s all playing out along the same exact lines as it has in America. Principles turn out to be less important than demography.

France is embarking on a grand experiment — how to diversify the overwhelmingly white “grandes écoles,” the elite universities that have produced French leaders in every walk of life…
The background is that the winners of WWII, America and Britain, kept their old-fashioned elitist colleges like Harvard, Yale, Oxford, and Cambridge old-fashioned and elitist. The losers, like Germany, France, and Italy, after the war trashed their great universities on the altar of egalitarianism by going to open admissions. (In the U.S., CCNY was the only famous college to take the Spirit of ’68 seriously enough to dump selective admissions.) Today, that’s why ambitious Korean and Chinese students want to go to American or British universities, not to Continental ones: We won The War.
The French, not being fools, however, kept a number of small elite colleges, the grandes écoles, to publicly educate the small number of people who keep the place running. Not surprisingly, blacks and North Africans have a hard time passing the entrance exams to the French equivalent of Caltech at rates equal to whites.
Because entrance to the best grandes écoles effectively guarantees top jobs for life, the government is prodding the schools to set a goal of increasing the percentage of scholarship students to 30 percent — more than three times the current ratio at the most selective schools. But the effort is being met with concerns from the grandes écoles, who fear it could dilute standards, and is stirring anger among the French at large, who fear it runs counter to a French ideal of a meritocracy blind to race, religion and ethnicity.

France imagines itself a country of “republican virtue,” a meritocracy run by a well-trained elite that emerges from a fiercely competitive educational system. At its apex are the grandes écoles, about 220 schools of varying specialties. And at the very top of this pyramid are a handful of famous institutions that accept a few thousand students a year among them, all of whom pass extremely competitive examinations to enter.

… The problem is not simply the narrow base of the elite, but its self-satisfaction. “France has so many problems with innovation,” Mr. Descoings said. Those who pass the tests “are extremely smart and clever, but the question is: Are you creative? Are you willing to put yourself at risk? Lead a battle?” These are qualities rarely tested in exams.

Whereas imposing a quota will suddenly produce creative risk-takers. Right. That’s why Google was founded by Michelle Obama.

To an American, it’s amusing to hear the French come up with the exact same cliches and fallacies as Americans have been telling each other for 40 years. Indeed, there are problems caused by reliance on entrance exams in terms of selecting for creativity and the like. But quotas do zip to fix those real problems. It’s not like the American quota kids all flock to Silicon Valley and start-up their own firms. A quota won’t give France its own Silicon Valley.

Gen. Xavier Michel, 56, runs École Polytechnique, one of the world’s finest engineering schools and still overseen by the Ministry of Defense. Known as X, the school is extraordinarily competitive, and its students do basic training and parade wearing the bicorne, a cocked hat dating from Napoleon, who put the school under the military in 1804.

“The fundamental principle for us is that students have the capability to do the work here, which is very difficult,” with a lot of math, physics and science, very little of it based on cultural knowledge, General Michel said. Even now, he said, the school takes only 500 students a year, barely 10 percent of its specially educated applicants. “We don’t want to bring students into school who risk failing,” he said. “You can get lost very quickly.”

Despite the misgivings, in February the Conférence des Grandes Écoles, under considerable pressure, signed on to a “Charter of Equal Opportunity” with the government committing the schools to try to reach the 30 percent goal before 2012 or risk losing some financing.

But how to get there remains a point of contention. There is a serious question about how to measure diversity in a country where every citizen is presumed equal and there are no official statistics based on race, religion or ethnicity. A goal cannot be called a “quota,” which has an odor of the United States and affirmative action.

Maybe the distinction between “goal” and “quota” makes more sense in French than it does in English, but in my experience with corporate American sales force management, “goal” and “quota” were absolutely interchangeable. We’d hire some hotshot to be head of sales management, and he would issue the salesmen either “goals” or “quotas” depending upon which term was used where and when he first worked. When the salesmen missed their goals/quotas, they wouldn’t get their bonuses. If they kept missing their goals/quotas, they’d get fired. Eventually, the sales force manager would get fired by the CEO for missing his goal/quota, and then we’d hire a new sales manager who’d use whatever the other term was until he got fired for his missing his.

Instead, there is the presumption here that poorer citizens will be more diverse, containing a much larger percentage of Muslims, blacks and second-generation immigrants.

Or maybe not. I don’t know anything about France, but my guess is that in the U.S., the biggest under-utilized repository of talent are white boys from broken homes.

But the government is examining whether the current test depends too much on familiarity with French history and culture.

Like analytic geometry (Descartes) and probability (Fermat and Pascal).

“We’re thinking about the socially discriminatory character, or not, of these tests,” Ms. Pécresse said. “I want the same concours for everyone, but I don’t exclude that the tests of the concours evolve, with the objective of a great social opening and a better measure of young people’s intelligence.”

“With the objective of a great social opening,” the U.S. has been trying to invent “a better measure of young people’s intelligence” for 45 years, but we keep finding out that the old tests we had before the Great Society worked fine. It’s the test-takers who turned out to be the problem, not the test. But why should the French government learn from the U.S. experience? The U.S. government never learns from the U.S. experience.

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