For some years now, a range of observers of French society have been critical if not of a certain decline in status of the middle classes, then at the very least of a greater rigidity of social reproduction (in Pierre Bourdieu’s sense). In other words, the French educational and economic system is allegedly no longer allowing the lowliest individuals to climb the social ladder, whereas the political and economic elites are continuing to reproduce themselves, maintaining an inherited social advantage. Has social mobility stalled in France? Clearly it has, says Bernard Hugonnier, who has examined developments with regard to republican elitism in France —that is to say, has examined whether the education system enables students to join the elite by virtue of their abilities and irrespective of their social origins.
After reviewing the issue of republican elitism, its origins and the ways it can be measured (and compared with the situation in other countries), Bernard Hugonnier shows that the French education system today is extremely inequitable and that there is a high degree of social determinism in its outcomes, something the French population are increasingly aware of. Beyond the failure over equality of access to the republican elite which this analysis exposes, the article highlights the indirect consequences that ensue: loss of faith in the elites —especially the political elites— and a questioning of the genuinely democratic character of the Republic in France. Indisputably, these obstacles to social mobility are substantial threats to social cohesion. And to deal with them, Bernard Hugonnier tells us, we shall have to begin with a thoroughgoing reform of the education system.