X = the French Power Elite, 1964

In 1964, Esquire magazine sent Anthony Sampson to profile École Polytechnique (also known as l’X or the X). Two years earlier, Sampson had published Anatomy of Britain, an examination of the ruling classes of the United Kingdom and the holders of its political, bureaucratic, and financial power, and he was the appropriate choice to chronicle École Polytechnique, which produced the ruling class of France.

When Sampson arrived, the school was still in its original Latin Quarter location in central Paris (later it moved out). École Polytechnique was established in 1794 by the mathematicians Lazare Carnot and Gaspard Monge during the French Revolution to train scientists and engineers for the public works and the civil service. It was turned to a military academy under Napoleon, and while it is no longer one, the institution is still run by the French Ministry of Defence, headed by a General, and the students follow the military discipline and wear a uniform.

The graduates (known as polytechniciens) go on to one of four technical civil service training schools: the Ecole des mines, the Ecole des ponts et chaussées, Télécom ParisTech, or ENSAE. Here, the X-prefix the school was known for is used: X-Mines, X-Ponts, X-Télécoms and X-INSEE, respectively to identify the graduates as the elite graduates of the Polytechnique. Its alum included three Presidents of France, famous scientists such as Poincaré, Mandelbrot, Becquerel, Carnot, Ampère and Fresnel, CEOs of French and international companies (including BNP Paribas, Total, Arcelor, Vivendi, Capgemini, Safran, Nissan-Renault, Credit Suisse) and the world’s current richest man: Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH, who graduated a few years after Sampson’s profile (as part of Class of X1969).

Sampson’s essay was published in Esquire in July 1964, and was accompanied by the photos of Sabine Weiss, a Swiss-French photographer.

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