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Stuck in Sleepy Strasbourg, Top French Students Long For Paris With PM-France-Best-Box

January 22, 1993

STRASBOURG, France (AP) _ This charming, mountain-ringed city on the German border might seem the perfect place to train France’s best and brightest to lead their country into a new European century.

But it’s a long way from the Left Bank.

As students and staff of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration reluctantly moved France’s most prestigious school into its new campus in an 18th century Strasbourg women’s prison this month, many were homesick for Paris.

The transfer is part of the Socialist government’s plan to decentralize and bring greater democracy to the so-called Grandes Ecoles, which train technocrats to run the state and its companies.

The relocation of the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, known as ENA, will also put its students in closer touch with the European Parliament, housed in Strasbourg.

Some conservative politicians say they’ll reverse the school’s provincial exile after the March parliamentary elections, which they are expected to win.

ENA is a common springboard to politics. Its conservative alumni include former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, a former premier. Former Socialist premiers Laurent Fabius and Michel Rocard also were ″enarques.″

But the school is not a political prerequisite. President Francois Mitterrand, who has called the Grandes Ecoles ″private game reserves″ that need wider enrollment, didn’t attend one.

Neither did Prime Minister Pierre Beregovoy, who pushed the move to Strasbourg. Beregovoy was a railroad man in his schooling days.

The ENA and other top schools like the Polytechnique, which specializes in technical fields, reinforce the highly centralized Paris government, which controls major industries, banks and utilities across France.

The Socialists, in power since 1981 except during 1986-88, have begun a plan to move 30,000 state employees out of Paris by the year 2000. They also have sought to hire non-ENA types in top echelons.

It would be politically risky for any conservative government to try to move the ENA back to Paris, since that would be seen as reinforcing a monolithic centralized government.

The new Strasbourg class of 104 students began work in January in one wing of the Sainte Marguerite Prison, which is being rebuilt in ultra-modern splendor.

With the stucco still drying, administrators were crammed temporarily into attic quarters while other gutted buildings are revamped in the $18 million renovation.

Many students and instructors are enraged at having to come to this sleepy city of 250,000, about 250 miles east of Paris.

A banner saying ″Non Au Transfer″ has hung over ENA’s magnificent 17th century entrance in Paris for the past year.

″We’re well-received,″ Severine Boutroy, a 23-year-old student, said Monday. ″But it’s a locale that doesn’t satisfy.″

ENA’s chief, Jean Coussirou, doesn’t plan to move from Paris until January 1994. ″The decision to move was too early. Strasbourg needs better transportation links,″ he grumbled.

The school will keep its Paris campus for testing, conferences and classes for international students, said Nadine Gardelle-Coringe, director of international programs.

Founded in 1945 to standardize civil service testing and training, ENA has long been attacked as fostering an elitist corps out of touch with the public. It is defended as a way for sharp minds to short-cut their way to top jobs.

Of this year’s crop, about half are polished, 20-something graduates of the Institut des Sciences Politiques who passed grueling oral and written entrance exams.

The government last year began enrolling older students who had at least eight years’ experience in private business and passed a less rigorous set of exams.

One-fourth of ENA’s students are women. Some are of African descent.

The entrance tests, which include questions on Paris opera and theater, are criticized as favoring well-heeled Parisians.

″If you’re born into a working-class family, you have to work much harder,″ acknowledged Dominique Terroir, the school’s spokeswoman.

″It’s true that ENA is a symbol of elitism,″ said Bruno Bachini, 24, who wore an ascot with his tweed jacket and jeans, and had close-cropped short black hair. ″But the exams guarantee a certain equality.″

The 26-month program includes a year of experience at government agencies, usually with a stint abroad. Classes focus on problem-solving and research. In Paris, there’s even a TV studio for aspiring leaders to polish their on-camera presence.

Students are given government appointments according to their class ranking. All are guaranteed jobs.

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