By Michel Rose and Mathieu Rosemain
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron's decision to scrap the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, training ground for the country's ruling elite, was criticised by school alumni on Friday, while others saw an opportunity to fix a despised symbol of inequality.
ENA, founded in 1945 by former leader Charles de Gaulle to train postwar administrators drawn from across all social classes, has been criticised in recent decades for failing to recruit more students from poorer backgrounds.
The idea of the country being run by entitled elite is especially irritating to some French people, who pride themselves on having thrown out the monarchy in the 18th century French Revolution to usher in a system of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity."
Shaken by the five-month old "yellow vest" protest movement, which has criticised the French leadership for being out of touch with ordinary people, Macron announced on Thursday he would get rid of the school, which he graduated from in 2004.
But for many alumni, who hold top positions in French political, diplomatic and business circles, the gesture was a populist move that will do little to address inequalities that start at a much earlier age.
"I think ENA is being made the scapegoat of a complicated political and social situation," Daniel Keller, the head of the school's alumni association, told France Info radio.
"If you want to fix inequalities in the education system, you won't succeed by tackling only the top of the pyramid."
Fleur Pellerin, a former culture minister and Macron's former cabinet colleague, said the move smacked of demagoguery. "The system that existed before the school was created relied on who-you-know and nepotism," she told Reuters.
The growing tendency for Enarques, as the school's graduates are known, to move back and forth between the public and private sectors has deepened the public perception of a distant, back-scratching old boy's network.
Four modern-day presidents and seven prime ministers have been Enarques. So too are the chief executives of telecoms group Orange, Societe Generale and the former boss of insurer AXA.
Some 15 of Macron's advisers at the Elysee Palace are also alumni. "At least all Enarques are not being dragged out and shot on a street corner. Until then, give me two days to run away!" one presidential advisor who attended the school told Reuters in jest.
'SCHOOL OF CONFORMISM'
But with fewer than one in five of those currently at the school having working class parents, ENA critics also said Macron's move was an opportunity to diversify the French establishment and open its ranks to bright students from minorities.
"Brilliant kids who live in the suburbs or the countryside are not even aware this education exists, and their parents don't know it either," Florian Philippot, Marine Le Pen's former number two and himself an ENA alumnus said.
The fact the school has churned out leaders from all sides of the political spectrum, including the far right, has reinforced the idea for some critics that election results barely seem to matter, since Enarques seem to win every time.
Gaspard Gantzer, who graduated the same year as Macron and was former President Francois Hollande's press relation chief, welcomed the move, saying it would help avoid groupthink.
"It's a school that trains the elite, but it's also a school of conformism and conservatism," he told BFM TV.
When making his announcement, Macron was careful to say ENA's headquarters in Strasbourg and its staff should be kept, in a sign he may probably want to reform the school and give it a new name rather than scrap it entirely.
The eye-catching decision is also part of a much wider reform of public administration careers, with an end to jobs-for-life protection for top civil servants.
It remains to be seen whether the move will appease yellow vest protesters. The ENA announcement was one of a series of measures Macron announced on Thursday in response to nearly six months of anti-government protests.
"Scrapping ENA is all just show," Christophe Chalençon, a high profile yellow vest figure, told Reuters.
(Additional reporting by Jean-Baptiste Vey; Writing by Michel Rose; Editing by Leigh Thomas and Frances Kerry)