French universities avoid worst in election but face uncertainty

Institutions put renewed hope in international collaboration after voters reject Marine Le Pen’s National Rally

July 10, 2024
Tightrope walker Nathan Paulin traverses a slackline between the Eiffel Tower and the Trocadero Square to illustrate French universities avoid worst in election but face uncertainty
Source: Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

The rejection of France’s far-right National Rally (RN) party in the National Assembly elections is a “win” for scientific cooperation, according to experts, but they warned it was too early to predict what a hung parliament will mean for higher education.

The New Popular Front, a hastily formed coalition of smaller left-wing parties, defied the polls to win with 182 seats, pushing President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist grouping into second, but finishing well short of a majority.

The prospect of a victory for Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration RN, which university leaders had described as “frightening” because of the possible impact on research, evaporated as the party was pushed back into a shock third place.

“The rejection of the RN is definitely a win for international cooperation,” Rainbow Murray, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, told Times Higher Education.

“Their hostile attitudes towards immigrants, and even towards French people holding dual citizenship, would have created a toxic environment for the HE sector, which relies on an international labour market.”

Professor Murray said an RN-led government would have made it even harder for non-French academics to access the job market, and “scared off international students”.

Faced with a hung parliament, she said the parliamentary agenda was “effectively on pause” and that higher education will not be at the top of the agenda when a government does form.

The left-wing alliance had pledged to scrap Parcoursup, the French admissions service, abolish selection within higher education, raise the salaries of those in the public sector, make research more ambitious, and make visas and residence permits more accessible for students and staff, according to Professor Murray – although most are “likely to get watered down if not abandoned”. 

Patrick Lemaire, president of the Collège des Sociétés Savantes Académiques de France, an alliance of the country’s learned societies, said: “The prevailing feeling is that while the worst has been avoided in the short term, the situation is currently too uncertain to make reliable predictions for the coming months.”

Although the funding situation for France’s higher education and research system was already “dire” at present, Dr Lemaire said it was unlikely there will be additional short-term budgetary cuts, and that the Ministry for Higher Education will survive, which was unlikely had the RN won.

In the longer term, he said, the left might not have the means to impose its more ambitious goals for the sector during a period of high public debt, and will be opposed all the way by the RN.

“Any efforts by a left-wing coalition to promote an environmentally friendly agenda, and promote research in social sciences, environmental and energy transitions, sustainable agriculture and adaptation to climate change will therefore face a strong opposition,” he said.

Emiliano Grossman, associate professor of politics at Sciences Po, agreed that the sector should not expect very ambitious policies in this area in the next three years but that over time the issue will “come back to the top of the pile”.

“Fundamentally, Macron had a rather ambitious HE policy, even if this has not been central in recent years and has even been part of the areas where budgetary adjustments have been tolerated and implemented,” he said.

“This being said, it may be one of the areas of more fruitful cooperation [between] the centre and the left. It is obviously difficult to predict, but I would not be surprised that the left will push for getting this portfolio in any future government.”

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