On 21 February this year, the name of Emmanuel Macron, the unexpected victor in the French presidential elections, began to resonate in United Kingdom higher education circles. This young man of 39, was being received by Prime Minister Theresa May as a serious candidate for the presidency. Stepping out of 10 Downing Street to say the customary word of thanks, he made a pitch for Brexit-weary bankers, researchers and academics to come to a renascent France after Britain exits the EU.
Now that he is president of France he should be of even more interest to UK higher education and research, both in terms of general lessons and in terms of the strategies that the UK might adopt.
For the British, Macron will be a new and powerful voice in the European Union club that has even more immediate concerns than Brexit, such as the economy, the refugee crisis and terrorism. Macron’s widely publicised point that Britain can’t expect better terms outside the EU than in, is not a sign of spite; it is a fact under the terms of the Treaty which requires respect for the freedoms which underpin the Single Market and the EU’s values.
A factor that UK higher education will want to take into consideration is that Macron has made Europe central to his strategy for combining competitivity and social justice. He will now be playing a role at European as well as national level on strategies for ‘excellence’ and ‘effectiveness’ in all aspects of education and research and also for policies which increase popular adhesion.
In an eye-catching move he has committed to providing ‘an Erasmus’ for 200,000 French students and apprentices per year.
In the negotiations to come over whether the UK should continue to participate in EU programmes for research and education, Macron could well decide that the French line would be to keep the UK in these programmes on the grounds that they enhance the European knowledge hub and he could back expanding popular programmes such as Erasmus on the grounds that they help strengthen the EU by making it more real to European citizens.
Research and education are both discretionary areas, meaning the EU can decide to include non-member states in the programmes if it wishes. But whether the EU27 are inclined to favour the UK will also depend on the diplomatic climate.
There are many diplomatic storms brewing, making prediction difficult, especially at General Election time when euroscepticism is being played up. The UK Independence Party’s former leader Nigel Farage seems to have unlimited licence to make odious comments. In a notorious tweet on 7 May, he announced Macron’s win as a prize for Germany equivalent to the Fall of France in 1940 though "at a cheaper price in bullets".
But even the UK prime minister, who knows about the rules and processes that the EU is bound to follow, accuses the EU of bullying and interfering in the British election. This can’t bode well for negotiations.
More specific to higher education is whether and how Macron’s win might affect bilateral relations. Normally these would not be subject to high politics and presidential involvement, but rather a matter for the sector to push as and when the political climate is favourable.
But according to the UK Science and Innovation Network in France there is little call for specific bilateral programmes. The UK research base enjoys strong links with France and has well-developed personal and professional relationships between researchers and top-level decision-makers.
Researchers in France form the third-largest national group of co-authors of scientific papers with the UK (after the United States and Germany). Each year around 18,000 French students come to the UK. Around 8,000 UK students head for France. But much of the collaboration has been through the EU in the large infrastructure programmes that are difficult to replace.
Overt French competitive drives to recruit researchers who are disillusioned by Brexit could change that picture, as could a drop in the number of French students wanting to come to the UK.
The more immediate issue is whether Macron will be able to deliver on his promises. The press in France and the UK is making much of the challenge he faces in getting a governing majority when the two-round legislative elections take place on 11 June and 18 June. He needs to get a majority drawing from centre right and centre that is first and foremost above party and loyal to him. The institutionally polarised parties want to get their revenge in the Parliamentary elections. It is unclear how this will pan out.
The Macron vote and universities
What British universities might draw from the campaign is how French universities, like other democratic institutions, were at threat from populism and the way in which the French have – at any rate for the moment – faced the populists down.
Analyses of the French vote suggest that only just over half of French citizens who gave Macron his score of 66.1% of the vote to Marine Le Pen’s 33.9% chose him primarily because they believed in his political vision that France could be a country open to the world and yet protective of its citizens.
Macron has been consistent all along, and unique in the campaign, in seeing the only effective solution in a reformed union of European states that are already bound together by shared cultures and significantly integrated economies and societies.
However, almost half of his vote came from those who backed his unambiguous stand against the extreme right’s populism and in particular its intention to use national institutions to promote nationalistic excess and bigotry. They came from all regions and all social categories. Le Pen, despite getting a record number of votes for the National Front, has been recognised by a clear majority of the French as an overt threat to the Republic.
And here’s the lesson for universities. French universities had reason to feel particularly under threat from Le Pen. France’s National Front is vocally anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim as well as economically protectionist. As such, her policies were a clear threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression as much as to basic notions of economics.
Her wish to ban the use of English for university teaching would have been more than a challenge to their increasingly internationalist strategies. It would also have represented a restriction of the easy flow of people and ideas that are essential to universities.
British universities have been reflecting hard about how to respond to the populism reflected by the referendum vote on Brexit that has divided British society. There is much talk in university circles about the need to be more civically connected. Yet what the French experience suggests is that its population has been saved from an extreme right wing not because of civic engagement but because of political leadership.
Macron has indeed offered a policy alternative that the established parties were not capable of. But a critical part of his victory is that he presented himself unflinchingly as the guarantor of democratic institutions. Those involved in the work that is going on in British universities on populism and how to combat it might look more closely at the French experience.
Anne Corbett is senior associate of LSE Enterprise at the London School of Economics and Political Science, UK.
Higher education priorities after the French election
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