In the course of your studying old photographs of your French ancestors, beware of those showing military uniforms, for all is not as it may seem. In the picture below, the man is wearing a military uniform; in the picture above, the men are not. They are wearing a school uniform.
The particular uniform in the top photo was of the Ecole Polytecnique, one of the first of the grandes écoles. It was created by the National Convention in 1794, along with two others, the Ecole Normale Supérieure and the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. All three were royal institutions of education that were restructured after the Revolution and all three were modelled on military academies, with the students wearing military style uniforms. Even today, the Ecole Polytechnique is still under the authority of the Ministry of Defense.
How to tell if a photo shows a soldier or a student? We have found no website or book on the uniforms of the grandes écoles, so we suggest looking for a specific facial expression or lack of it: extreme pride. The student of a grande école will have it, the poor conscript most likely will not. Every man was required to do military service, but entrance to a grande école (of which there are now at least twenty) was and still is quite difficult. There are years of preparation, there are exams, there are interviews.
To understand the system of the grandes écoles, which are completely separate from the university system of France, is to understand how the country is run, for every senior civil servant and every corporate executive is a graduate of a grande école. Hence the pride, some say arrogance. Graduates of the grandes écoles are known by a nickname, which may appear on the back of your photo. Thus, alumni of:
- Ecole Polytechnique are known as Xs or Polytecniciens
- Ecole Normale Supérieure are known as Normaliens
- Arts et Métiers are known as Gadzarts
- Ecole nationale d'administration are known as Enarques (and they are VERY powerful)
- Ecole nationale des chartes are known as Chartistes
Should you find a Gadzart or a normalien among your ancestors, you could try contacting the school for some details as to his studies there, particularly as to in which city he did his studies (most of the grandes écoles have multiple locations around France). Discovering where a man was living in his early twenties could lead to discovery of where he married. One never knows.
©2012 Anne Morddel