To understand the mystery of French intellectuality, one must begin with the École Normale. Founded in 1794 to train secondary school teachers, it became the forcing house of the republican elite. Between 1850 and 1970, virtually every Frenchman of intellectual distinction (women were not admitted until recently) graduated from it: from Pasteur to Sartre, from Émile Durkheim to Georges Pompidou, from Charles Péguy to Jacques Derrida (who managed to flunk the exam not once but twice before getting in), from Léon Blum to Henri Bergson, Romain Rolland, Marc Bloch, Louis Althusser, Régis Debray, Michel Foucault, Bernard-Henri Lévy, and all eight French winners of the Fields Medal for mathematics.
When I arrived there in 1970, as a pensionnaire étranger, the École Normale still reigned supreme. […] The young men I met at the École seemed to me far less mature than my Cambridge contemporaries. Gaining admission to Cambridge was no easy matter, but it did not prelude the normal life of a busy youth. However, no one got into the École Normal without sacrificing his teenage years to that goal, and it showed. I was unfailingly astonished by the sheer volume of rote learning on which my French contemporaries could call, suggesting an impacted richness that was at times almost indigestible. Pâté de foi gras indeed.
But what these budding French intellectuals gained in culture, they often lacked in imagination. My first breakfast at the École was instructive in this regard. Seated opposite o group of unshaven, pajama-clad freshmen, I burdied myself in my coffee bowl. Suddenly an earnest young man resembling the young Trotsky leaned across and asked me (in French): “Where did you do khâgne?”—the high-intensity post-lycée preparatory classes. I explained that I had not done khâgne: I came from Cambridge. “Ah, so you did khâgne in England.” “No,” I tried again: “We don’t do khâgne—I came here directly from an English university.”
The young man looked at me with withering scorn. It is not possible, he explained, to enter the École Normale without first undergoing preparation in khâgne. Since you are here, you must have done khâgne. And with that conclusive Cartesian flourish he turned away, directing his conversation to worthier targets. This radical disjunction between the uninteresting evidence of your own eyes and ears and the incontrovertible conclusions to be derived from first principles introduced me to a cardinal axiom of French intellectual life.
Tony Judt, The Memory Chalet, London, 2010, pp. 114-116