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Elite Paris “Institut d’études politiques” embraces students from all backgrounds

189 students from schools in tough neighbourhoods have been admitted to the prestigious Paris “Institut d’Etudes Politiques” (France’s Institute for Political Studies, nicknamed “Sciences Po”), located in the city’s famed Latin Quarter. For the past five years, this educational institute for the French elite has broadened the recruitment base for its 6,000 students via a network of partner schools. Through its Priority Access Scheme, “Sciences Po” is contributing to France’s “integration” project via some minor adjustments.

Admission to the prestigious Paris Institute for Political Studies is perceived as a stepping stone to impressive carriers, providing access, for some, to the gilded gates of the renowned ENA (National School of Administration), which trains top civil servants. Countless prominent figures are “Sciences Po” alumni: French and foreign political personalities (including President Jacques Chirac, former Minister of Employment Martine Aubry and Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Stoere); luminaries from the worlds of business and journalism (Jean-Marie Colombani, editor of the daily French newspaper Le Monde; French journalist Christine Ockrent, etc.) and even artists (stand-up comedian Anne Roumanoff and singer Camille, for example).

150 years after the school’s founding in 1872, a study carried out in 1998 revealed some shocking facts: 81% of the freshmen students admitted to “Sciences Po” come from wealthy families - a status quo that preserves elitism rather than fostering the diversification of the social base of France’s governing class, today confronted with the challenges of a changing and pluralistic society. At “Sciences Po” more than at any other school in France, especially when compared to the country’s engineering schools, applicants who are not part of the “elite” (in particular, children of second and third generation immigrants) must contend with nearly overwhelming obstacles in order to pass the rigorous entrance examination. With its focus on writing skills, assessed through history, language and cultural dissertations, the entrance examination to the Paris Institute for Political Studies was revealed as “discriminating” against students for whom culture and knowledge are not fundamental values.

But “Sciences Po” has changed course since 2001: the degree program has been extended from three to five years, in keeping with the rest of Europe, and recruitment has been diversified, with a large number of students hailing from outside of Paris and beyond France’s borders, including young people from France’s disenfranchised neighbourhoods. Admission slots are now reserved for students with “atypical” profiles (189 students since 2001, with 57 in 2005, and future provisions of 15 to 20% of freshmen admissions). A second route has been established that detects specific qualities. Second-year “Sciences Po” student Walid Fakir, 19 years old, a top graduate of partner school Guy-de-Maupassant de Colombes, in the Ile-de-France region, explains: “The admission jury assesses your public speaking skills (based on your ability to deliver a press review, notably) as well as your intellectual curiosity. They also ask you to describe your extra-curricular activities”, he continues at a recruitment meeting for students at a new partner school in Guadeloupe, one of France’s overseas departments. “The jury isn’t looking for geniuses, or pre-programmed people who can learn through rote memorization. They want people with atypical paths and genuine personality” (from Interception, a radio show on France Inter).

The Institute’s Priority Access Scheme, or outreach program, is based on partnerships with over thirty schools located in cités in the suburbs or in “difficult” neighbourhoods, areas that have generally been classified as “priority education zones” (ZEP). During the last year of secondary school, instructors help the students prepare for the “Sciences Po” entrance examination by organizing, for example, workshops that focus on the oral and written presentation of a press review. The energy these instructors expend is reminiscent of the devotion of the so-called “Hussards Noirs”, teachers who under the Third Republic were designated to offer the most deserving students educational grants, thus enabling them to undertake extended studies in France’s leading schools, or Grandes Ecoles. In the same spirit, “Sciences Po” has entrusted the teachers of the partner schools with the mission of pre-selecting students for the entrance examination.

This parallel admissions route to “Sciences Po” has repercussions that go far beyond successfully passing the entrance examination (the number of slots is extremely finite). Educators at the partner schools evoke the spread of a pattern of emulation that prompts the adolescents, generally fans of sports and music rather than studying, to believe in the “virtues” of knowledge. This momentum in turn helps break the iron law of self-censorship that “forbids” certain secondary school students from applying to the literary, business and scientific “preparatory classes” required to sit the competitive entrance examination to the Grandes Ecoles.

Once they have been admitted into this “temple” of academic knowledge, with its strictly defined codes of language, attitude and clothing, the new students must be “integrated”. Special “lectures” are offered, in addition to mentorship from a student volunteer and a referent professor, and financial aid for their housing in Paris and study-related costs (including waived registration fees). During joint presentations, these new students interact with students admitted via the extremely selective traditional channels. Some of the latter, such as Paul, 22 years old, acknowledge that the non-traditional entrants bring a different perspective to the lectures, one that is based on their own experience. This fresh insight is valuable for placing in a real context abstract topics such as long-term unemployment and for providing a more representative spectrum of French society. Their presence also has an impact on the way the professors deliver their courses.

Today, the initial 17 students admitted in 2001 under the new system are finishing their degrees. In the course of their long-term internships with various companies, they were praised by their employers for their ability to adapt, a sure sign of their future success in the professional arena. These “atypical” young people embody, each in their own way, the new ambition and attitude instilled into “Sciences Po” by director Richard Descoing, the instigator of this near revolution. “The overarching goal of Sciences Po is to provide a fundamental education”, he explains on the institute’s website, “(….) through a pluridisciplinary and international perspective turned toward taking action and responsibilities. In an increasingly unpredictable world, in which recycling the recipes of the past or even the present constitutes more of a risk than a guarantee, qualities such as imagination, resourcefulness, innovation and the ability to drive change are now essential” - qualities that are certainly not lacking in these young, often multi-cultural students (65% of those newly admitted have at least one parent who was born outside of France) who are doggedly determined to succeed. Through its Priority Access Scheme, “Sciences Po” is contributing in a positive manner to the debate stirring French society regarding the integration of its underprivileged populations and their lack of opportunities, by fostering a form of quota-based “positive discrimination” that indiscriminately rewards motivation and merit.

Written by Inès Chapron-Somarriba
taken from Actualité en France Series no. 69 / 04 (magazine of the ministry of Foreign Affairs)