France's Golden Handcuffs

Published in the New-York Times: December 15, 2010

My American wife finds it difficult to understand why, just because I graduated from France's École Polytechnique and became an engineer of the country's Corps des Mines when I was 21, I was automatically given position after position in the French civil service and in large state-controlled companies until I moved to the United States.

Why should someone be given tenure just because he went to a certain school? Academics who enjoy similar job security in the United States justify tenure on the grounds that it protects intellectual freedom and comes with peer recognition of proven professional accomplishment. Public school teachers owe their job security to the power of their unions. What justified mine?

During a trip to Paris last month, I had the chance to reconsider my wife's objections. The mood of pessimism about France's future, especially among young adults, is striking. So is sympathy for the anti-government Tea Party in the United States among cosmopolitan French people who might be expected to be more critical. The reason for both is France's stifling and antiquated governmental control of every aspect of entrepreneurial life.

Nowhere is centralized government more powerful than in the selection and education of France's elites. Starting in childhood, French boys and girls are groomed to pass the tests required by France's top Grandes Écoles, the "great schools" established in 1794.

Graduates of École Polytechnique like myself, or of École Nationale d'Administration or École Normale Supérieure automatically come into managerial jobs in government and industry.

Many become lifelong bureaucrats charged with everything from energy policy and diplomacy to arts administration, secure in the knowledge that they can never lose their jobs. Even if a chandelier should fall on one of these bureaucratic heads, he or she would continue to draw a salary.

The single most powerful incentive to get young, energetic French men and women to start businesses of their own would be to abolish all of France's "grands corps de l'État."

Of course no haut fonctionnaire (government civil servant) would ever recommend such a drastic step because, as the French might say, "one does not saw off the branch on which one is perched."

Living in the academic milieu of Boston for the last 30 years has shown me a very different system. Several of my American colleagues have received as superb an education as my own and were as successful as I was at École Polytechnique. Had they lived in France, it is likely that they would have been lured by the prestige and lifelong job security of the grands corps de l'Etat, as I was.

Instead, there are many people like my colleague Shikhar, who came from India to the United States, graduated from Harvard Business School and proceeded to start several high-tech companies. Eran, a native of Austria and a graduate of M.I.T. and Harvard Business School, became the chief executive of a young company with several hundred million dollars in revenues. My cousin John emigrated from Europe, earned a Ph.D. from Cal Tech, and, while teaching new generations of scientists, founded several biotechnology companies.

I have no doubt that, had they grown up in France as I did, Shikhar, Eran and John would have graduated from Polytechnique or one of the other Grandes Écoles and would have become members of the Corps des Mines, the Corps des Ponts et Chaussées, Inspection des Finances, the Magistrature, or the Corps Préfectoral.

Instead of applying their skills and energy to starting new companies and labs, they would have become high level officials doing administrative work in state bureaucracies or managing large state-controlled companies, as many of my French peers still do.

If the spirit of initiative of France's best-trained young men and women is to be freed so that France and its economy benefit from their creativity, France must do away with the golden handcuffs of lifetime job security and prestige the grands corps de l'État offer.

National wealth derives from the vitality of new businesses, the arts, scientific research and political action, not from ever-expanding rules and regulations the country's highly trained officials keep generating. If France eliminates its grands corps de l'État, it will enjoy a jolt of creativity, growth and optimism as highly capable young men and women enter more risky, exciting and productive careers in business and elsewhere. France would greatly benefit.

Patrick Mehr is founder and president of a consulting firm in Massachusetts, where he has lived since 1982.