The French republican ideal of a meritocracy has been dealt a blow by a survey that reveals the extent of social and cultural inequalities.
According to research published by INSEE, France's national statistical office, the education system itself perpetuates the differences.
Researchers Dominique Goux and Eric Maurin found that mass education has not made society more mobile. Inequalities appear at an early age and continue throughout a person's career. Two individuals with the same qualifications will not necessarily have the same "social destiny," but will remain fixed in the social background into which they were born.
During the past 25 years, French education has seen massive change from an elite system, which meant the majority leaving school early, to one that encourages all young people to stay on to take their baccalaureat and proceed to higher education.
But, while acknowledging that opening up the schools has contributed to a huge rise in the level of training, Goux and Maurin find that the complexities of the reformed education system have most benefited children whose parents were themselves educated to a more advanced level.
"In 1970, in 1993, indeed in 1996, a young person aged between 25 and 34 still has two chances in three of being more highly qualified if he is the son of a manager than if he is from a modest background (unskilled worker, farmer or employee), and only one chance in 10 of being less qualified," says the report.
Mobilite Sociale, Economie et Statistique no. 306, 1997-6, INSEE, 75582 Paris, Cedex 12, price 46 francs