“I was eighteen years old, I was just starting at Sciences Po and I was left-wing because, given what I was and what I was reading, I didn’t see how I could have been otherwise*.” The year is 1989. Édouard Philippe had “only just” passed the Sciences Po entrance exam after a year of literary classe préparatoire. It was the start of three “dream years” for him on the university’s Paris campus.
There, the teachers’son from Rouen, brought up in an environment in which “socialism was firmly established”, was to make great strides on his intellectual and political journey.
“The pragmatic qualities of a politician”
In his student record, most of his lecturers described him as a curious, cultured student and gifted public speaker who took to his subjects enthusiastically. “Édouard is a distinguished orator”, commented the lecturer of the course “How Science is Done”. “[H]is questions were among the most pertinent in the class. He demonstrated [...] the pragmatic qualities of a politician.”
His international relations lecturer considered him an “intelligent, astute and cultivated” student; his economics lecturer anticipated that “through his work, [he could] compete with the best”. And it’s amusing to note a comment from the lecturer of a course on the United States, who praised “his analysis of ‘presidential popularity’ [as] well written, stimulating, well documented and well thought through conceptually”.
Only at quantitative methods, where his lecturer found his work “poor overall”, and sport, with an average of 6/20 in volleyball, did he fail to shine. “My working method consisted of one very concentrated hour in the library, half an hour of table football followed by half an hour at Le Basile café”, Philippe told Sciences Po students during the inaugural lesson on the Paris campus in August 2017. “It worked well.”
“Read beyond your comfort zone”
During his years at Sciences Po he discovered that “to form an opinion, you have to read a bit beyond your comfort zone”.
Among his formative discoveries were John Rawls and Friedrich Hayek, who were “looked down upon or viewed with horror by the opinion-leaders around me”, Philippe said. “You have to read authors and about periods that you don’t like. An uncomfortable reading stimulates the mind and soul”. He cited another “surprising encounter” from that time with the work of historian Raoul Girardet, author of L’idée coloniale en France de 1871 à 1962 (Fr). It was his history professor Elikia M’bokolo who made the (literary) introductions, and noted in his assessment for the 1989-1990 academic year Philippe’s “fine appetite for knowledge”, giving him 15.5/20 for the course.
“With all the vigour of a young man, I wanted to join the Socialist Party”
During his years at Sciences Po, Edouard Philippe met with more than ideas. “I was left-wing, I liked Rocard**,” he said. “With all the vigour of a young man, I wanted to join the Socialist Party.” He became an active member of the Socialist Party section of Sciences Po, full of “passionate, ambitious students, some of whom were ready to do anything to get noticed, who joined the party mainly to meet ministers, get a job with one or other MP and hopefully, when the time came, land a nomination. Some were actually sincere!” he quipped.
“The most extraordinary thing was how it was organised into cliques, and the tension between them,” he added. Two years later, in 1991, “disgusted with how the Rocard government was ousted”, he took his leave from the Socialist Party, where he had made “few friends, but lasting ones”. Though still a leftist in 1993—“not enough according to (his) friends at the time”—by 1997 Philippe had swung to the right. “In the eternal debate […] between freedom and equality, reality and utopia, individual responsibility and collective responsibility, I had realised that I favoured the former in each pair.”
The ideas he first came across during those formative years have matured. Philippe has since been to the École Nationale d'Administration, which he found “less amusing”. Loyal to—or nostalgic about?—his time at Sciences Po, Philippe is always happy to return. As mayor of Le Havre from 2010 to 2017, he didn’t miss a single Welcome Ceremony at the Sciences Po campus in Le Havre. On 30 August 2017, a few months after his appointment as prime minister, it was with obvious pleasure that Philippe came to the Paris campus to give the first-year students the inaugural lesson. It had a clear aim: to encourage them to read “beyond their comfort zone”.
* This and the following quotations are taken from the book Des hommes qui lisent, Édouard Philippe, JC Lattès (2017).
** Michel Rocard (23 August 1930 – 2 July 2016) was a French politician and member of the Socialist Party (PS). He served as prime minister under François Mitterrand from 1988 to 1991. He was a member of the European Parliament, and was involved in European politics until 2009. Michel Rocard graduated from Sciences Po in 1952.