Vive le business! MBA's are latest French fashion

No one has quite come out and said that the business of France is business, but that day may not be far off. In a nation where profit margins and gross revenues have long been unseemly topics for dinner conversation, interest in business is growing fast. And nowhere is the trend more apparent than in the long lines forming in front of France's business schools.

In the last five years alone, new business programs have opened at universities in Paris, Nice, Tours, and Grenoble. During the same period, the European Institute of Business Administration (INSEAD), perhaps the most famous of French business schools, has seen its applicant pool triple to 1,600 for its 280 annual openings.

``Business has become fashionable,'' says Jacques-Louis Keszler, director of the 'Ecole des Hautes 'Etudes Commerciales du Nord, in Lille.

Mr. Keszler traces the new interest in business to the poor economic performance of the Socialist government in Paris. ``The French suddenly understood that the economy was not a matter of ideology, but a matter for professionals,'' he says.

``It's a booming market,'' says Jean-Paul Laron, director of the prestigious Hautes 'Etudes de Commerce. ``We are facing an enormous double demand,'' he adds, in which employers are looking for business-trained managers, and students are scrambling to sign up.

The Socialists have given their tacit blessing to the trend, too. While they were elected in 1981 promising a break with capitalism, Prime Minister Laurent Fabius himself showed up earlier this year to inaugurate a new 'Ecole Nationale d'Exportation, a training program for export industries. France's trade deficit has been a nagging problem for the government.

Another sign of the changing attitude is the popularity of a flamboyant tycoon named Bernard Tapie, who has made a name for himself buying companies on the brink of failure and turning them around with large-scale layoffs. His appearances at business schools have drawn enthusiastic audiences.

``He has become a hero of modern France,'' says Mr. Laron. Ten years ago, anyone talking of profit and layoffs would have been booed off campus, Laron adds. Today, courses in entrepreneurship are among the most popular at his school.

But even with this new popularity, many business programs continue to fight against employers who have long made a practice of hiring their brightest young managers from the nation's prestigious schools. Such competitive schools as the 'Ecole Polytechnique offer training in engineering, rather than business.

In the past, French companies have also generally preferred to do much of their business training themselves. Many found that candidates they hired from the top MBA programs in the United States tended to be too expensive and arrogant, and apt to jump to another company within a few years.

Aware of these feelings, the French schools have tried to shape their curriculum to give students as much practical training and overseas experience as possible.

EAP, a Paris-based school, offers an unusual three-year program that sends its students for both classes and internships in Great Britain and West Germany, along withplaces in France. Many other schools offer the opportunity to pick up an American MBA during a fourth year of study in the US.

INSEAD does not offer overseas study as such, but has such a diverse student body that its students have access to information on all kinds of international business practices without leaving its leafy campus in Fontainebleau.

A quarter of the students at INSEAD are French, and some 30 other nationalities are represented. Any given classroom may include students from Britain, Israel, and Lebanon -- students with academic backgrounds that range from law and engineering to Icelandic studies.

``That alone is something that by the end of the year will make you amazingly better at dealing with a difficult, changing world,'' says Gareth Dyas, a professor at the institute.

Many of the top schools hope to break down the remaining resistance to business training through executive training courses they offer for mid-career managers. INSEAD, for example, devotes 60 percent of its teaching time to such courses, which usually last a few weeks. The school was expecting to enroll 1,200 executives this year.

``They will come back into their own environment believing in this kind of education,'' says INSEAD dean Claude Rameau.

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