‘Faire de bonnes études’ in France means only two things: ‘faire médecine’ or ‘faire une grande école’. All the rest is crap.
Les Grandes Ecoles are a highly competitive set of graduate schools. They fall into two categories: commerce (ESSEC, HEC) and ingénieur (Polytechnique, Centrale, Mines, Ponts). Add Sciences-Po (which is half way through) and Ulm (which is not properly une école) to that list and there you have your French Grandes Ecoles. Conveniently, they are all based in the surroundings of Paris. (Where else?)
Graduating from a Grande Ecole leaves in the Parisian subconscious mind a more lasting mark than a tattoo on a Finn’s skin. Most Parisians who did not graduate from a Grande Ecole consequently feel a form of discomfort about it. They might be great parents, great professionals or great people, they just missed that key milestone of Parisian intelligence.
It is therefore every Parisian’s dream to have at least one of his children entering a Grande Ecole. If that happens, the Parisian can die in peace.
The fact that a person is a student or an alumnus of a Grande Ecole usually comes early in a conversation. Rarely though from the actual graduate: more frequently, this piece of information is brought to the table by the inferior friend, who is too happy to boast a Grande Ecole friend in front of his other inferior friends: ‘j’étais là-bas avec Marc, tu sais, mon copain centralien…’. At this point, the Grande Ecole graduate adopts a humble ‘I’m just like you guys’ profile. On top of being smarter, he is also sympa. This makes others admire him even more.
Grandes Ecoles are hard to get into. What it takes is excellent grades, hard work, educated parents and a hint of luck. The most fantastic thing about putting together that combination of things is that no matter what he does with his life, Parisians will always consider the person who graduated from a Grande Ecole as superior. And therefore entitled, throughout his career.
The fact that most Grande Ecole graduates end up being grey corporate executives is not relevant. Their intelligence has been vouched already. They won. Everybody else lost. It is important to realize that in Paris, no successful entrepreneur, artist, writer, chef, artisan can be considered part of the elite (at least in this lifetime). This category is exclusively reserved to Grandes Ecoles alumni. Other people are expected to move on.
By understanding that intelligence is one fold and fully determined at age 20, Parisians manage to offer the world an easily readable social scale. Finally! Merci qui?
Useful tip: The most obvious form of professional success in Paris is to be a Grande Ecole almuni’s boss.
Sound like a Parisian: « Tu sais que Caroline se marie?! Un garçon très bien, ESSEC, super sympa… »