This article analyses the evolution of the influence of social background on educational and occupational achievement across the 20th century in France. We use pooled data from the French Labour Force surveys for the period 1982–2014 and undertake an analysis of 11 birth cohorts born between 1918 and 1984. We demonstrate that social background inequality in terms of access to higher education has diminished across cohorts, even within the highest and most selective educational levels, such as the grandes ecoles. However, we also document, as Torche did in the United States, the existence in France of a U-shaped pattern in the intergenerational transmission of advantages across levels of education. Thus, contrary to previous assertions made by Hout, the influence of social background on social destination does not necessarily decline linearly with educational level. Altogether, these findings question the greater meritocratic nature of the labour market among the highly educated and call for more research to be undertaken on the influence of non-meritocratic assets related to social background on the recruitment process and occupational career development.

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