Business Schools and Politics

In view of the previous presidential elections, youth is becoming more and more a crucial political issue. This is a very special electoral segment, as young people are the population that votes the least but also one of the populations that, through certain militant movements, is most involved in the upcoming elections. This contrast between political disinterest and activism is also strongly linked to the environments in which young people evolve, and in particular to their membership in schools or universities.

Students from institutions such as the Sorbonne or Science Po Paris are known for their involvement in politics, but what about business school students?

Business and politics, an old story


Politics is relative to the organization of the power in the State and to its exercise, in this sense politics is older than the concept of politician, let us return on all these nuances. The businessman has in some way been linked to politics for a long time. This was already the case during the Renaissance, when the bourgeoisie, gaining power thanks to their financial power, began to take on local political responsibilities in the large merchant cities. Councils and guilds took shape and asserted themselves. The bourgeois, drawing their wealth from trade, were then responsible for and associated with the following political evolutions. From the French Revolution to the First Republic, nicknamed the Bourgeois Republic, the political power of the businessmen grew, they reserved the right to vote through the censal suffrage and gained access to political functions. The political functions are shared between the former aristocrats, the men of law and the men of trade. The influence of the latter is slightly reduced by the Empire and then by the Restoration before resurfacing with a liberal influence bringing Louis Philippe to the throne and later having to overcome the authoritarian drifts of Napoleon III to make him the champion of this new commercial class.

Finally, it was with the IIIᵉ Republic that businessmen became linked with the political function, the great industrialists increased their influence on the government, and at the same time the figure of the "politician" emerged, a professional who completely disclaimed the exercise of power and, for the majority of cases, came from the bourgeois and commercial world.

It is still common to see politicians coming from the private world and even more so from business schools. HEC alumni include François Hollande, Valérie Pécresse and Florian Philippot. Michel Barnier and Jean-Pierre Rafarin have also studied at ESCP, while Cécile Duflot and Fleur Pellerin have studied at ESSEC. Thus, although politics is not the obvious outlet of a business school, the links exist and are still relevant, for example 4 of the 25 students admitted by external competition (the one open to students) of the class of 2017 of ENA were from business schools.

Politics in business schools

Modern business schools have always taken a neutral stance towards the political climate. This is due in part to their ties to private institutions, their need for donations, and their willingness to distance themselves from the media sphere in order to avoid any scandal that might taint their image.

Until recently, only HEC was an exception with two political associations on campus, "Hemisphère Droit" and "Contre Courant". These associations, positioned respectively on the right and left of the political spectrum, did not survive the 2017 campaign. We can thus say that today, despite the approaching presidential elections, activism is almost absent from business schools with small groups trying to form but without much success. This situation seems rather paradoxical since the students in question have been taught a great deal of geopolitics and economics, but it seems that an isolation effect from public debate exists.

Nevertheless, if business schools create paths to join the political world, the latter does not mix well with that of business schools these days. One example is the recent controversy surrounding the arrival of Éric Zemmour at ESCP.

However, the link between business school and politics is maintained by the schools' administrations through numerous courses leading to public service jobs.
Thus, at HEC Paris, the Prep'ENA has long been one of the most prestigious programs and the school can also boast a solid partnership with Science Po Paris, a school that has seen five of the French presidents of the Fifth Republic pass through. HEC also offers other programs such as the Public Policy and Management double degree, HEC Paris / Freie Universität Berlin, the MALD (Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy) double degree, HEC Paris / Fletcher, the International Relations double degree, HEC Paris / MGIMO and the Public Policy double degree HEC Paris / Georgetown University. Other business schools cultivate this openness to the political world, such as ESSEC (Prep'ENA with Paris IX-Dauphine) or ESCP (agreement with the University of Paris 1 and the ENS to allow certain students to access the Prep'ENA). Thus, there are many "bridges" between the worlds of business and politics. François Hollande, who studied at both Science Po Paris and HEC, benefited from this path.

Nevertheless, if business schools create paths to join the political world, the latter does not mix well with that of business schools these days. One example is the recent controversy surrounding Eric Zemmour's appearance at ESCP. This appearance was organized by the association "Tribunes", whose goal was to give a voice to all the candidates in the election, whatever their ideas. However, many people within the school, its alumni network and the media world disagreed, saying that the school should refuse to host this kind of controversial figure and apply a policy of active neutrality, excluding the campaign from the school.

In this sense, Libération headlined: "Zemmour at ESCP: the guilty 'neutrality' of the management". According to some media, a business school should therefore apply this active and imposed neutrality rather than a passive neutrality inviting all the topical speeches to be heard within it.

Thus, if the business school can lead and is close to the political world, there is today a certain unease about the place of politics within it. But let's not be mistaken, this uneasiness is not unfounded, it can already be explained by all the factors already explained above (required neutrality, responsibility towards donors and companies...), then, it is in the era of time.

Indeed, the place of politics in educational institutions is already a major issue in the English-speaking world. This complex problem is now arriving in France, and the controversy surrounding the arrival of Éric Zemmour at ESCP is no stranger to this dynamic. It shows that, after institutions such as Science Po Paris, it is perhaps the turn of business schools to be shaken, despite their desired neutrality, by the place of politics within them.

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