The Napoleonic myth of la méritocratie

The French Revolution spawned a new age of opportunity for the many to make it to high office. Or did it?
Portrait of Emperor Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Christophel Fine Art / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
Portrait of Emperor Napoleon I by Jacques-Louis David. Credit: Christophel Fine Art / Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
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Meritocracy, with all its ambiguities, is a very French ideal, even though the word itself, invented in England, entered their language only in the 1970s.  

But the underlying concept goes back before the Revolution, when ‘merit’ became a fashionable way for members of the nobility to justify their worldly eminence.  Holding public positions solely by reason of birth became somewhat unfashionable in the age of Enlightenment.  But no one (it was hoped) could argue with rewarding merit.  And merit came from education, experience, and cultural capital—precisely the things that noble birth tended to confer.  

The Revolution abolished the nobility, though not the nobles.  Except for the luckless minority who lost their heads, they remained wealthy and prestigious.  But the Revolution did declare that public careers were henceforth ‘open to all the talents’—a very popular change for the male educated and prosperous bourgeoisie, who could now aspire to giddy heights, and for ambitious members of the lower orders who could at least hope to place a son or two on the social ladder. 

Napoleon Buonaparte was one who spectacularly profited.  Helped on his way, rumour had it, by his mother’s affair with the French governor of newly conquered Corsica, his undoubted brains and ruthlessness did the rest.  Luck helped too, as some of his ablest rivals fell foul of the Revolution or the bullets of its enemies.  Here was a Darwinian meritocracy at its rawest.  

Napoleon certainly espoused meritocracy, up to a point.  He was no democrat, and realised he needed the support of the pushy property-owning elite who had profited from the revolutionary upheaval: those who were now officially called ‘notables.’  Their sons could rise high, and if they were clever and useful enough, very high.  They would not, of course, be expected to start at the bottom: the lycées (established by Consul Bonaparte) were few and expensive, and were the only road to the baccalauréat, the key to professional careers.  There were no schools for the masses.  So ‘all the talents’ were in fact the monopoly of the already fortunate. 

Money, lands in conquered territories, and grandiose titles were showered on successful meritocrats.  One newly created duke—something of a rough diamond—was supposedly asked at a banquet by an old regime survivor who his ancestors were: he replied ‘I’m the ancestor.’  

The army was Napoleon’s model meritocracy.  Every soldier, so went the legend, had a field-marshal’s baton in his knapsack.  But as in other branches of the state, having a head start was almost invariably decisive.  Most of Napoleon’s highest officers were, like himself, former junior officers or at least non-commissioned officers in the pre-revolutionary army.  But important meritocratic gestures were made.  Napoleon’s Légion d’honneur, a tweaked version of the Old Regime’s Ordre de Saint-Louis, was open to all ranks—and it conferred a solid pension.  Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, made an even more striking meritocratic gesture: France’s highest decoration for active service, the Médaille militaire, could be won only by ordinary soldiers and commanders in chief.  

Meritocracy in France is closely associated with the service of the state, and the selection and training of its servants.  In this, the ideals of the Revolution ran parallel with the examples of Prussia and Russia, where state service, whether military or civilian, was a compulsory part of elite status.  Napoleon developed and extended the grandes écoles, state training schools, some dating from the Old Regime.  Most famous were the École Polytechnique (to train artillery and engineer officers), and the École normale supérieure (to train teachers for the lycées and universities).  Other schools trained engineers for roads, mines, and manufactures.  

Remarkably, the grandes écoles were kept and multiplied by every succeeding regime—one of the principal ways in which the Napoleonic state proved a template for monarchies and republics alike.  Most recently, the older grandes écoles have been joined by business schools, most famously HEC Paris (Haute École Commerciale).

Crowning the system is the celebrated or notorious ENA, the École nationale d’administration, founded in 1945 by De Gaulle.  Smaller than the smallest Oxbridge college, it moulds an overlapping and omnipresent political, business and bureaucratic super-elite, including four of the last six presidents of the republic.  Emmanuel Macron recently announced the establishment of a super-ENA called the Institut de Service Public providing a foundation year for fonctionnaires from gendarmes to ambassadors.  France’s universities, far more accessible, are vastly less prestigious.  

How could democratic republics maintain such an elitist system largely designed by autocratic rulers?  Because it fitted in with the republican mythology of social mobility gained by merit.  Once the Third Republic established compulsory primary schools in the 1880s, it was possible to imagine a seamless conveyor belt by which the children (well, the sons, anyway) of peasants could rise from the village primary school, where they would be taught rigorously by dedicated instituteurs (nicknamed ‘the black hussars of the republic’) to the Elysée Palace.  One or two actually made it.  This has remained one of the most beguiling elements in France’s republican self-image.  

Moreover, for some thoughtful republicans, it was essential that a democratic regime create a new ruling class.  The old one had either been destroyed by successive revolutions, or had sided with the forces of reaction.  So the first attempt at an ENA was made by the Second Republic in 1848.  Early in the Third Republic (1870-1940), the famous École Libre des Sciences Politiques (Sciences Po) was established, in the words of one of its founders, to ‘create a brain for the people.’  

Thus over more than two centuries, monarchies, dictatorships and republics have all used this network of highly competitive schools, meaning that France, more than any other democratic country, has a true ruling class trained to govern. 

A meritocratic ruling class?  Yes, but as with any meritocracy, equality of opportunity is something of a sleight of hand.  The principle makes the system palatable to the lower orders, who hope their own children might win the career lottery if only they are clever and work hard enough.  And some of them do.  But the leading grandes écoles recruit mainly from a limited social stratum, carefully coached and educated in a small number of specialist secondary schools, mostly in Paris.  The Old Regime nobility would not find the system too alien.  

Robert Tombs

Robert Tombs is a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge.

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