A U.S. and a French naval officer compare notes after completing their respective exchange duty tours at the French Ecole Navale and the U.S. Naval Academy.
By Lieutenant Commander Joe Yodzis, U.S. Navy
Both the Ecole Navale and the U.S. Naval Academy are charged with training future officers for their respective navies, but the scope and particulars of their purpose differ enormously.
The Naval Academy provides midshipmen with a university education similar to that received at civilian schools. Professional training accounts for a small part of the curriculum—currently, only 23 credit hours. The Ecole Navale reverses that emphasis, with a curriculum composed of intensive professional training augmented with courses in French, English, and history.
The majority of officers in the French Navy are graduates of the Ecole Navale; the rest are from a program similar to Officer Candidates School. Because the latter program was instituted only recently, all of the current leaders of the French Navy are Bordaches, or "midshipmen." This, of course, is not the case in the U.S. Navy; only 15% of our officer corps are Academy graduates.
Surprising to most of us in the U.S. Navy is the relative anonymity of the Ecole Navale. Few Frenchmen even know that they have a naval academy. By contrast, the U.S. service academies enjoy a great deal of national prestige. The locations of the two schools are symbolic of the difference. The Ecole Navale is hidden in a corner of France's westernmost department, Finistere, or "Earth's End," far from Paris or other well-known areas of France. The U.S. Naval Academy is part of historic Annapolis, Maryland's capital and an upscale tourist destination, 30 miles from Washington.
As a whole, the French military maintains a lower profile and does not enjoy the same level of public support as the U.S. military. This is reflected in the comparatively high proportion of sons of career naval officers at the Ecole Navale. They are among the minority who are aware of the opportunity and are oriented toward a career in the French Navy. In contrast, U.S. midshipmen often view the Academy and naval service as a prestigious and advantageous start in life, which may or may not include a full career in the Navy.
The means by which prospective midshipmen are selected at the two schools contrast sharply, providing a window through which to view some of the differences in European and American social thinking.
The path to acceptance at the Naval Academy is long and complicated, involving political appointment, test scores, high school class standing, and extracurricular activities. To those factors are added considerations of gender and race. It is a process that involves many people and hundreds of man-hours. In comparison, the Ecole Navale administers a competitive exam and the top 70 performers are accepted. No consideration is given for demographics, ethnicity, Boy Scouts, or bench press.
By design, the Brigade of Midshipmen reflects, to a considerable degree, the variety found among the American people. This is an ideal with a lot of popular support in the United States, a nation with a strong republican heritage. A complex selection process also is more likely in a country in which states exercise considerable latitude in their individual systems of secondary education. Those applying to the Naval Academy do not come from schools of equal strength or comparable curricula.
In France, where academic credentials are the single most powerful measure of personal merit, scholastic athletics are unknown, and there is no consciousness of any definable group needing special consideration, it seems obvious to select solely on the basis of a competitive exam. Not surprisingly, les Bordaches are disproportionately Parisians from comfortable backgrounds who had access to the finest preparatory schools. Ecole Navale midshipmen rarely, if ever, come from blue-collar families.
In this area there is also substantial difference. Naval Academy midshipmen generally enter with no more than a high school diploma, which provides only a rough indication of academic preparation. This is then followed by a full four-year university curriculum leading to a Bachelor of Science degree.
To compare the Ecole Navale requires a brief discussion of French post-secondary education. At the end of lycee, or high school, the best students sit for the baccalaureate exam, a comprehensive week-long ordeal that leads to a degree in any one of five disciplines. Those destined for the Ecole Navale take the Bac C, a concentration in science and mathematics. With their degrees in hand, prospective midshipmen attend a two-year preparatory school, designed solely for intensive instruction in the hard sciences. Only after successful completion of preparatory school do they sit for the entry exam for the Ecole Navale.
Once accepted at the Ecole Navale, all midshipmen follow essentially the same two-year curriculum, which is characterized by in-depth study of navigation, electronics, ship design, and oceanography. History and English are taught as well, though not with the same emphasis. There is a loosely organized intramural sports program and a few other extracurricular activities. In contrast, the Naval Academy offers 18 different majors based around a hard-science and professional core, plus a galaxy of military, sports, and civic activities, all competing for a midshipman's limited time.
Level of Instruction
Both academies are among the best schools of their respective nations, but the two institutions operate at different levels of academic instruction. Courses in science and mathematics generally are thought to be substantially more challenging at the Ecole Navale. In the humanities, the difference is more difficult to assess, though the French midshipmen often possess an extraordinary knowledge of American literature and have an edge in modern languages. Their interest in and mastery of world events, particularly politics and economics, exceeds that of their American counterparts, particularly impressive when one considers that they are pure science majors.
In professional subjects, there is little comparison between the two schools. The Ecole Navale offers comprehensive training for a deck watch officer at sea, which French midshipmen are qualified to do immediately upon graduation. Their preparation is detailed, thorough, and in-depth, comprising the bulk of the curriculum. The Naval Academy provides basic navigation skills through eight credit hours of seamanship and navigation, less than half that of other U.S. maritime academies. The Naval Academy instruction is buttressed after graduation at specialty schools and on board the new officer's first assignment. The U.S. Navy possesses a proportionately larger air arm, Marine Corps, and submarine service than the French Navy, all requiring separate, specialized instruction. In addition, French officers of all branches can expect command at sea earlier and more often, imparting greater significance to seamanship training.
In physical education, the Naval Academy has a decided advantage. Organized competition, facilities, and hours dedicated to sports all favor the Naval Academy. The results are evident. French midshipmen are lean and generally fit, but they lack muscular development, particularly in the upper body, and would be no match for their American counterparts in a well-rounded fitness test.
To a Frenchman, it is a natural assumption that those who succeed in a rigorous academic environment and who are technically competent are apt to lead effectively. Americans are far more likely to subscribe to a "whole man" approach for leadership preparation, including sports, morality, academics, and even physical appearance.
At the Naval Academy, upperclassmen are given considerable responsibility for the administration and training of the Brigade of Midshipmen. The first-class (seniors) serve as Brigade officers, captains of varsity sports teams, and members of the Honor Committee. The hours devoted to sports not only improve physical performance and health, but also build confidence and aggressiveness.
There is little parallel at the Ecole Navale to this process of leadership development. Second-year midshipmen (Aspirants) exercise no authority over those in their first year. French officers assume that confidence and command presence will flow inevitably from professional competence, so there is no attempt to develop it through sports or other means.
In judging the relative merits of the Ecole Navale and the U.S. Naval Academy, their effectiveness in fulfilling their mission—selecting and preparing officers for their respective navies—must be the measure.
Officers comprise 7% of the French Navy, as compared with 13% for the U.S. Navy, which means French junior officers are afforded greater authority and responsibility. The relatively small French Navy does not possess a broad range of follow-on schools; training at the Ecole Navale is by necessity comprehensive. A French ensign joining the fleet upon graduation must be prepared to take the deck and the conn, direct the maintenance and troubleshooting of his equipment, and exercise command.
The U.S. Naval Academy must deliver a university degree while preparing naval officers. In-depth training is expected to occur at follow-on schools and at the first command. Senior enlisted personnel and limited-duty officers direct equipment repair and maintenance; so there is less emphasis on technical ability among line officers.
How well prepared are midshipmen for service in their respective fleets? Officers of Ecole Navale overwhelmingly remain in the French Navy for a full career. Taken together with the near-perfect retention rate of the Ecole Navale, their selection process seems phenomenally successful. By comparison, an entering class of 1,200 midshipmen at the Naval Academy will graduate about 900. That number will be further reduced by those who do not qualify in their warfare specialty or who are not selected by the many boards they will face in following years. By that imperfect measure, the French selection and training would seem more effective—or at least more efficient.
The results of the leadership and physical training at the Naval Academy are impossible to quantify. If the goals of confidence and aggressive leadership are being met, it would be manifest primarily in times of crisis. Naval Academy graduates have been undeniably successful at sea.
Both systems are adapted to national realities, but there is room for the Ecole Navale and the Naval Academy to borrow from each other. Professional preparation at the Academy could be strengthened; the Ecole Navale could institute a more rigorous program of physical training.
As the world becomes smaller and navies work in closer cooperation, mutual understanding rises in importance. This understanding pays the added dividend of providing a mirror with which to view ourselves in contrast to others—and, for those with enough self-confidence and vision, an opportunity to benefit from it.
Lieutenant Commander Yodzis served at the Ecole Navale from 1987 to 1990, and currently is an instructor at the Naval Academy.
By Lieutenant Pierre Graffin, French Navy
Public image is certainly one of the biggest differences between the U.S. Naval Academy and the Ecole Navale. When I first came to the United States, I was amazed to find how well known and highly esteemed the Naval Academy is, not only in Annapolis, but throughout the country—within and outside the Navy.
What a difference in my country. Since the beginning of the century, the armed forces have not been very popular in France. Even if they are not hostile, most French people are indifferent to the military and have no notion what the Ecole Navale is.
The same situation applies in press relations. In France, no reference is made to the Ecole Navale except in military magazines or perhaps local newspapers. To read regular news about the Naval Academy in a paper such as the Washington Post was a big surprise for me.
It is very difficult to say whether celebrity status or a low profile is better. Being known and loved throughout the country can be positive and boost morale, but the immediate reporting of any Navy event in the national press also can be a problem and create pressure when calm resolution of a problem is best. Unfortunately, I think press and public opinion are likely to be inseparable.
Whatever the differences, the fundamental mission of the two institutions is the same: to graduate a portion of all commissioned officers annually and to provide them with all the necessary skills to be among the best in tomorrow's Navy. Though located in a place forsaken by all but the Creator, the Ecole Navale is, in all its professional austerity, loved and supported by its alumni, who are proud of their school.
The French selection process is completely different from that employed by the U.S. Naval Academy. There is only one way to enter the Ecole Navale: score in the top 15% of those who take the competitive entrance exam. It begins with a four-day written exam (eight to ten different three- or four-hour-long compositions in math, physics, chemistry, English, French, etc.). The candidates with the best results are then allowed to compete in the oral and athletic examinations. The only criterion for selection is performance on this exam. If most midshipmen come from navy families, it is because the popularity of the school is very weak and thus only children from navy families become interested.
When I first heard about the admissions process at the U.S. Naval Academy I was incredulous. In France, selection based upon political appointment would be seen as deeply unjust, as an avenue for families with political connections to gain access to an institution they did not merit. After two years at the Academy, my understanding has evolved somewhat; in a country where the best high school education is often private, and therefore prohibitively expensive, a generic entrance exam would not provide everyone an equal chance. That is not to say that the process is completely fair (it would be impossible with so many quotas), but a conscientious admissions board can be expected to employ a large dose of objectivity.
Which process is best? I don't know; probably neither of them. What I am sure of is that they are efficient for their respective schools, but would be failures if we tried to interchange them.
The best way to compare the two institutions is to equate the four years spent at the U.S. Naval Academy to the two years of classe préparatoire plus the two years of Ecole Navale. In France the curriculum is almost identical for all students, while at the U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen can choose from 18 different majors. In France all candidates receive intensive scientific training in the first two years, which is indispensable to success on the entrance exam. At the Ecole Navale, there is a lot of scientific subject matter, but it is essentially as a foundation for weapons and systems classes. The humanities also are very important, because future naval officers will have to travel and will meet different kinds of people (politicians, diplomats, foreigners) in different contexts; having a background of geography, history, economics, and English is essential. Military (infantry drills, parades, leadership, and law) and maritime training (navigation, cruises, tactics, weapons, ship design, and engineering) are the only real objectives and are thus emphasized for all midshipmen. (For example, in two years every midshipman spends at least eight weeks at sea on ships similar to YPs). Finally, the athletic training used in France to keep midshipmen in good shape cannot be compared to the quasi-professional training of U.S. midshipmen.
Level of Instruction
The U.S. Naval Academy confers upon its graduates a bachelor of science degree similar (with the exception of the 23 professional credit hours) to those awarded by U.S. civilian colleges and universities. The Ecole Navale delivers a very specific education, comparable to that received by civilians at the same level, but very different in substance.
The maritime training and the instruction that supports it (sciences and humanities) are at a higher level in France because the Ecole Navale's sole objective is the education of an officer, ready to be employed as soon as he graduates and usually for at least 15 years beyond.
High-school backgrounds are not the same either, since in France every midshipman has had a high level of scientific instruction, which is not the case in the United States. I have found while teaching navigation at the Naval Academy, for example, that most of the proofs we studied when learning tides and celestial navigation at the Ecole Navale could not be understood by most American midshipmen because of their weaker scientific background.
Similarly, though some American midshipmen are knowledgeable in the humanities, many of them are lacking, and only a very few are able to communicate in a foreign language. In France, this area of study is considered essential and is mandatory for everyone.
In the area of physical education, the advantage is definitely American. No French varsity team (even in soccer or rugby) could expect anything but decimation in a game against their American counterparts.
It is obvious that both the institutions deliver a high quality education at corresponding levels. I believe, however, that if an exchange were conducted between midshipmen, it would be more difficult for an American at the Ecole Navale than it would be for a Frenchman at the Naval Academy.
This area made the strongest impression on me. The substantial responsibilities given to upper-class midshipmen have nothing in common with the few indoctrination duties of French Aspirants. Nothing could provide better education and training for leadership than these practical opportunities.
The Naval Academy has many advantages in the practical instruction of midshipmen in such abstract but necessary notions as responsibility, readiness, and human relations.
In contrast, everything at the Ecole Navale is based upon theory, and practical daily example is provided by officers, whose few years of experience in the Navy are useful. Drawing on the experience of officers and learning from them is good training for midshipmen, but it certainly is not as instructive as having them build their own experience first hand. The disadvantage of the American system is for the young officers, whose job is often more to be an adviser than to act as a real step in the chain of command.
Even with the same mission, the U.S. Naval Academy and the Ecole Navale operate a bit differently because our countries differ. We have contrasting school systems and different societal challenges; consequently, our midshipmen have different backgrounds.
We have different navies; the French Navy is not as rich, as big, or as populated by officers as the U.S. Navy. The jobs of young officers in our two navies, even if they compare closely, cannot be absolutely identical and thus neither can the education and training for these jobs.
People entering the two schools are not seeking the same education. In France, Bordaches make the choice of a very specialized school that will give them the skills needed for a specific career of at least 15 years. (Out of the 75 midshipmen who graduated with my class in 1984, only one has left the navy after ten years). In Annapolis, many midshipmen come to get a bachelors degree, which after five years of service around the globe, will be a great credential for a civilian job.
Problems that exist at the Naval Academy—in particular, the integration of racial minorities and female midshipmen into the brigade—are unknown in France. The first female midshipmen entered the Ecole Navale last September.
Most interesting, however, is to find that beyond these differences there exists a strong common bond between our two schools. In Annapolis, as in Lanveoc, everyone does his best to prepare the future leaders of our respective navies with the knowledge and skills they will need. Providing that specific training while adjusting to rapidly changing social norms is not an easy task if we are to remain true to our mission.
Above all, there is the particular mentality of midshipmen—a mixture of tradition, pride, idealism, and youthful spirit—that is found nowhere else and that is the true wealth of these special schools. That is why, in an environment so similar to that which I knew in France, my two years at the Naval Academy as an exchange officer were so delightful.
Lieutenant Graffin served as the French Navy exchange officer at the U.S. Naval Academy, 1992-1994.