Plan to target poorer pupils
But not everyone thinks it's fair, reports Genevieve Hesse.
In an initiative started in 2001, talented young people from deprived Parisian suburbs have enrolled on a special programme at the elite Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
They receive the same teaching and qualification as Sciences Po's other 5,000 students. But an invisible line continues to divide them from students from more privileged backgrounds.
On one side of the line are the concours , named after the regular written entrance examination. Before taking the test, most of them go through a preparation course, which can cost up to €2,000 (£1,366).
On the other are the zeps - 60 first-year students who have to pass an oral exam to get in. Zep is an acronym designating the banlieues (suburbs) around the city where they live. Sciences Po co-operates with 23 high schools in the banlieues where the teachers decide which students can prepare, free of charge, for the oral exam.
Sixteen years ago, 18-year-old Houria Khemissi moved from Algeria to the poor Paris suburb of La Courneuve. At Sciences Po, Houria, a naturalised French citizen, socialises almost exclusively with zeps , many of whom are also the children of immigrants. She said it was "pure coincidence". But in the cafeteria, another zep , 19-year-old Mustapha Namous, also talks only with other zeps .
Mustapha lives in social housing with his parents in a 17-storey tower block in the suburb of Drancy, just a few streets away from the flashpoint of last year's riots. His older brother sells pizza. His mother speaks only a few words of broken French. When he moved to Paris at the age of eight, Mustapha could not speak a word of French either.
The Sciences Po leadership is trying to encourage the zeps and the concours to mix more. It says that in the second year at the latest, full integration is achieved, demonstrated by the large number of zeps playing a part in student associations.
But friendships that thrive outside the campus are exceptional. Often the concours enjoy expensive activities in their free time - which creates a divide.
Roughly a quarter of students at Sciences Po come from families with an annual household income surpassing €145,000 (£98,000), said director Richard Descoings - prosperity enjoyed by just 2 per cent of French households.
He strongly believes that the institute is in need of "social renewal" and he sees the programme as a way of moving in this direction. Intelligence has nothing to do with background, as the zeps' good academic record shows. Two-thirds receive a state scholarship of €6,100 a year to cover living expenses. Most are exempt from paying fees - which can be as high as €5,000 a year.
The programme has its detractors. No one wants to say that the students from the banlieues are damaging France's elite but, off the record, several students claim that the zep exams are easier, and that they get the better internships in the US. In the Seventies-style café opposite Sciences Po, rumours fly about somebody who enrolled at a zep high school so they would have an easier time getting into the elite school. "Rubbish," said Houria. "Why would anyone risk attending a worse high school just for that?"
Of the growing number of students who apply through the zep process, 16 per cent were accepted in 2004. For the concours the acceptance rate is 10 per cent. The selection is roughly comparable. "Maybe," complained an anonymous student in the bar, "but their general level is lower."
Nawale Bouzeboudja, who has French-Moroccan dual nationality, does not let such "nasty thoughts" worry her. She has been at Sciences Po for two years. She goes there "just for the lessons".
After class, she looks forward to her spacious room in a student residence with neighbours from around the world. Nawale grew up in the Paris suburb of Saint-Ouen. All six members of her family lived in a two-room flat.
Nawale said: "With us [ zeps ] they're trying to freshen up their stale image and are renewing the elite of the Republic."
She does not believe her Arabic-sounding name will be an obstacle when she applies for jobs in future. Her sister had no problems when she applied for managerial positions at international companies, where diversity is considered an asset.
Ana Stephan is in her fifth year. She does not feel discriminated against, perhaps because she is of Romanian rather than Arabic origin, she says. She sees Sciences Po as her "second home". In her first year, she was surprised by some of the more obscure expressions her professors used - for example the word " nonobstant ", which means "nonetheless".
These days Ana has made the jargon and habits of Sciences Po her own. "I like discovering new cultures," she said. Her best friends include three zeps and one concours from a very rich family.
Although Ana got in through the zep process, she did not receive a scholarship because her parents work. They had to take out a loan to cover her costs. For Ana, a single entrance exam would be fairer. People would be "privileged only because of their talents, not because of their origins".
That is exactly what a right-wing student union is calling for. In France, the principle of égalité still counts more than the idea of affirmative action. Quotas are frowned upon as an American evil. At Sciences Po they prefer to talk about "positive discrimination".
It is still too early to say whether such individual success stories are merely a drop in the ocean. And the institute still has some way to go to reflect the community outside. "Compare the number of blacks here to the numbers of blacks on the street," one student commented.