France’s scholarly MPs take clinical approach to policy

Academics who have become deputies for Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche! hope to tackle country’s problems with scientific method

August 2, 2017
Jean-Louis Touraine
Source: Jean-Louis Touraine
Jean-Louis Touraine: politicians, like doctors, should ‘listen first, then formulate a diagnosis before proposing a treatment’

With so many researchers among his crop of new MPs, it might be expected that recently inaugurated French president Emmanuel Macron would look to run the country with an academic bent.

According to a medical researcher who is now a deputy for En Marche!, the party will look to transform the state using an “experimental” model, trialling policies in different areas of the nation to see which one works best.

Jean-Louis Touraine, an expert in immunology who will continue to manage a research lab while an MP, said that he and six other professors elected as En Marche! representatives in June were attracted by the prospect of finding “practical” solutions to France’s problems, rather than basing policy on “theoretical” ideas.

France’s new cohort of professor-deputies tilts towards the natural sciences: there are two medics, a mathematician, a computer scientist, a biologist, a management specialist and an ethnographer, according to Luc Rouban, a political sociologist at Sciences Po.

Another eight assistant professors are also En Marche! MPs, meaning that just over one in every 25 En Marche! deputies is an academic.

Mr Macron has pledged to make En Marche! a party of the centre that draws people from both left and right, of all professional backgrounds, and with a large proportion completely new to politics.

Professor Touraine, who represents part of Lyon, previously represented the defeated Socialist Party for two parliamentary terms, but switched to En Marche! for this year’s election. He and his fellow academic MPs tend to want to put into action “practical” policies that have been thwarted in the past, he explained.

They all believe that the previous system was “too old, with some dust on it”, and were tired of the two main parties blocking each other's proposals, no matter what they were, Professor Touraine added.

En Marche! will have an “experimental approach” towards policy, he said, “not based on theoretical ideas, but on practical approaches”.

One of Professor Touraine’s priorities is to help France’s “medical deserts” – rural or suburban locations left without general practitioners in an age when, he says, physicians “don't want to work alone”. 

He hopes to experiment with a number of potential solutions to see which one works best. “If the results are satisfactory, it can be extended to larger parts of society,” he said.

Professor Touraine also likens the party’s approach to that of a doctor: for many months before the party was even formed, younger volunteers went from house to house to listen to people’s problems, equipping the party with a deep understanding of France’s problems, he said.

“When you are a medical doctor, you first listen to your patients, the second time you try to formulate a diagnosis, and the third time you propose a treatment. And the same is true in politics. En Marche! has developed this same approach,” he said.

But Richard Lioger, an ethnographer now representing Moselle, in the north-east of the country, for En Marche!, has a rather different answer when asked what an academic can bring to politics. “When you are an academic, your priority is to give and share your knowledge. I think it implies empathy, kindness and comprehension," he said. “All of these skills should be our political representatives’ priorities.”

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As was the case when he was a socialist MP, Professor Touraine will continue to run his research laboratory at Claude Bernard University Lyon 1 “for a small part” of the week. “I am not doing the experiments myself,” he said, but instead he runs meetings and grant applications. “The everyday activities are done by younger scientists.”

Aside from health policies, he also wants changes to French higher education. In France, any youngsters who pass the end-of-school baccalaureate can go to university, but many graduates struggle to find jobs afterwards, he said. The answer to this is not “crude selection” of university students, he said, but making sure that youngsters were “orientated” towards institutions that would fit them better.

Professor Touraine, like many French politicians before him, also took aim at what he sees as excessive leisure time for workers (although Mr Macron has not pledged to drop France’s famous 35-hour week). “Young people tend to prefer, as you can guess, leisure over work,” he said.

But he wants to replace leisure time not with more work but with education. “What is required is to convince the people that if they invest part of their time in additional education, they will have a more pleasant and effective job,” he said.

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