The Ecole des Mines, which is part of France's Grandes Ecoles, trains engineers for the mining and steel industries, and gives an advanced university education in math, physics and engineering science in general. Mr. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan graduated from the Ecole des Mines, in Paris.
I chose to study at the Ecole des Mines, in Nancy, in eastern France, because the director of that institution, Mr. Bertrand Schwartz, was well-known for his innovative teaching methods.
Mr. Schwartz had a renowned reputation. In addition to the traditional ex-cathedra method, where teachers lecture from the podium, he also employed the more dynamic and new-at-the-time method of studying in small groups. His elder brother, Laurent Schwartz, was a recipient of the Fields Medal, which is the mathematician's version of the Nobel Prize. Bertrand Schwartz himself, besides his responsibilities at the Ecole des Mines, contributed decisively to modernizing continuing education in France.
The Ecole des Mines director was an eloquent speaker. "Broaden your intellectual horizons as much as possible in anticipation of big changes in science and technology, economy and society," he maintained. "Learn to learn" was his motto. He called on us to not only gain a basic education but to ready ourselves for new facts and new challenges, rather than rehash what we had already learned. "Prepare to change careers several times in your lifetimes," he told us.
The director also emphasized on-the-job training. In my first year of study, I worked for two months in Pit No. 2 at the Auchel coal mine in northern France, near the border with Belgium.
I went down the 700-meter pit in the elevator with the other coalminers and moved through the dark, narrow galleries in search of coal seams. With a pneumatic jackhammer in hand, I crept through the gallery and dug out the coal from seams barely a meter wide. Water soaked my clothes. I remember to this day that feeling of entrapment.
Working under those hard conditions was a valuable learning experience. Most of the miners were immigrants; many had come from Poland to France looking for work. It must have been such a difficult life to engage in that kind of work away from their home country.
At the end of my first year of study, in July and August 1962, I went to the U.S. for the first time and trained at a steel company in Tampa, Florida. The company made steel bars from scrap steel melted in an electric furnace. Using a hand tool, I removed the steel bars at the exit of the rolling mill and placed them on a cooling bed. That was literally "physical" labor. Florida is extremely hot anyway in the summer, so you can imagine that this kind of work was quite an experience.
I was in close contact with Mr. Schwartz after I was elected president of the Council of students and received personal tutelage from him. At the same time, I developed a strong interest in economics. In my third and final year at Ecole des Mines I studied economics simultaneously at the University of Nancy.
I decided to pursue economics, after having been awarded my diploma of ingenieur civil des mines. My ultimate goal was to pass the exam of Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), the school that trains France's top civil servants.
"You have a degree from the Ecole des Mines, so you should get a job in engineering. Why pursue this new risky venture?" That is what the normal Ecole des Mines director would have told me. Mr. Schwartz was different. Instead, he gave me a push: "What you are pursuing is very difficult, but I've always told you to be bold, so go for it!"
Mr. Schwartz introduced me to two ENA alumni: Roger Fauroux, a director of Saint-Gobain-Pont-a-Mousson, the glass and cast iron manufacturing company, and Michel Rocard, a civil servant in the Ministry of Finance who later became prime minister of France. They both encouraged me to go on to the ENA in my final year at Ecole des Mines.
That set me all the more firmly on the path toward the French civil service.
Jean-Claude Trichet is former president of the European Central Bank.