PARIS — France is embarking on a grand experiment — how to diversify the overwhelmingly white “grandes écoles,” the elite universities that have produced French leaders in every walk of life — and Rizane el-Yazidi is one of the pioneers.
The daughter of protective North African parents in the tough northeastern suburb of Bondy, Ms. Yazidi is enrolled in a trial program aimed at helping smart children of the poor overcome the huge cultural disadvantages that have often spelled failure in the crucial school entrance exams.
“For now we’re still a small group, but when there will be more of us, it’ll become real progress,” said Ms. Yazidi, 20. But she is nervous, too. “We’re lucky, but it’s a great risk for us,” she said. “We might never make it” to a top school.
Because entrance to the best grandes écoles effectively guarantees top jobs for life, the government is prodding the schools to set a goal of increasing the percentage of scholarship students to 30 percent — more than three times the current ratio at the most selective schools. But the effort is being met with concerns from the grandes écoles, who fear it could dilute standards, and is stirring anger among the French at large, who fear it runs counter to a French ideal of a meritocracy blind to race, religion and ethnicity.