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Why French banks were hyper-elitist. And how this is changing

Historically, if you wanted a top job with a French bank you had to attend one of the elite French 'Grandes Écoles.' However, a new study suggests this is no longer always the case, and not just in banking but across French industry. 

Academics at the Sorbonne in Paris and the Toulouse business school interviewed 39 people in 26 global French companies, including multiple senior HR professionals in French banks. Until recently, they found that French corporations had a very different concept of high-potential employees to their U.S. counterparts.

In French corporate culture, the study found that being a high-potential employee traditionally meant two things. First, you had to pass 'context dependent' tests of your expertise which were biased towards people who'd worked for a single company for a long time. Second, you had to have studied at one of the Grande Ecoles formed after the French Revolution.

In this sense, there was what the academics describe as a 'double exclusion' applied to elite positions at French firms. Only if you were an 'insider' who spent most of your career in one place and you attended a specifically French elite educational establishment could you rise to the top. 

Most people in French investment banks would confirm this: complaints have long been made against an upper strata of managing directors who've spent their entire careers working for one particular bank, and who allegedly take most of the bonus pool. "It's a very hostile place to work," says one trader at a French bank in London in a gripe typical of his peers. "The people who stay here are extremely political and have their own agendas and the people like me who come from outside and who just want to put their heads down and work tend to get fed up and move on." 

However, the academics suggest the culture is changing as global French companies embrace the U.S. practice of 'talent management.' Napoleonic concepts of elitism are allegedly being replaced by more pragmatic concepts of excellence demonstrated on the job, irrespective of the school you went to and the amount of time you've worked for a single employer. Suddenly, French companies are even adopting American techniques like objective assessment practices for high potential staff, say the academics.

One banking HR person interviewed for the study confirmed this. These days, she said French banks need "a new elite" to help deal with more complex environment."Expectations are shifting away from the status achieved by attending a prestigious school."

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Photo by Vitor Pinto on Unsplash



AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • gu
    13 December 2019

    it's still helpful in life and at work to have a quality education but not a requirement to succeed at one's job. it's important to note that recruitment in these elite schools is almost exclusively based on merit (even if there's a structural bias towards favoured backgrounds, maybe natural selection) unlike other types of business/law degrees in France or abroad.

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