There is still all to play for. Although the polls got closer and closer in the lead-up to the vote, it was widely predicted that Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen would make it through to the second round of the French presidential elections. Now they have two further weeks to present their radically different views of France – and France’s place within Europe and the wider world – and the result is still too close to call.
While their policies on higher education are unlikely to be the decisive factor in swaying the electorate, they are nonetheless revealing of the candidates’ wider attitudes. French universities, elite specialist grandes écoles and research institutes are highly international, but (with the exception of a few renowned business schools) they don’t tend to attract the Asian and North American students many institutions around the world are keen to recruit. On the other hand, France is utterly dominant in the francophone North African market as well as the strongest player in sub-Saharan Africa.
If the country remains very outward-looking, it could easily cash in on the Trump and Brexit effects and pull in far more students who would traditionally have chosen the US and the UK. Macron has already issued an appeal to American climate scientists to come to a country where the (potential) head of state has “no doubt about climate change”.
Should France, on the other hand, turn inwards, its higher education system could rapidly become far less international. Marine Le Pen’s campaign rhetoric constantly targets immigrants from the very North African countries that dominate the international student body. And, just as in post-Brexit Britain, her hostility to the European Union could jeopardise research funding.
The other key issue for French higher education concerns university autonomy. Le Pen has had little to say on this, but Macron wants to develop the trend in this direction begun under the centre-Right president Nicolas Sarkozy and continued under the socialist François Hollande.
This has proved predictably controversial. The introduction of new performance management systems, for example, is seen by some as merely ensuring that people do the job they are paid to do. Others fear they are the thin end of the wedge, part of a wider “neoliberal” agenda designed to reinvent French universities on the marketised Anglo-Saxon model. One left-wing polemic I read savaged what has been happening over the past decade – and which Macron had pledged to take further. Though obviously written in French, it revealingly switches to English for the words “New Public Management” and “bullshit”.
Just as with Brexit and Trump, it is safe to assume that few within French HE will support the nationalist populism of Marine Le Pen. But will those well to the Left of Macron – on university autonomy as well as many other issues – take a “purist” line and simply not bother to vote? With a female candidate, could misogyny play the same kind of role as many feel it did in the American presidential election? Will “respectable” right-wingers and reactionaries find Marine Le Pen too “vulgar” to vote for? And will the “republican” consensus that anything is better than the Front National hold up once more?
It is still too early to tell. What is certain, however, is that the second round of the presidential election on 7 May will have a vast impact on France, its status in the world and European integration. It will also leave an indelible mark on French higher education.