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Scientists cheer Macron’s victory but must await his plan for R&D

As a former investment banker, Macron understands venture capital and what it takes to promote innovation. He wants to push on with university reform and improve science teaching, but the exact shape of his agenda hangs on parliamentary elections

Emmanuel Macron speaking at LE WEB conference in 2014
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The scientific establishment was mightily relieved to see Emmanuel Macron swept to victory in the second round of France’s presidential contest, with 66 percent of the vote to Front National Marine Le Pen’s 33 per cent.

“It was a choice between the decent and the horrible,” said physicist Édouard Brézin, a former president of the French Academy of Sciences. “Thank God decent won.”

Macron, a pro-European centrist, has promised a new approach to politics when he takes office on 14 May.

As yet it is unclear exactly what this will mean for science and research, but there is a sense of optimism. “I think he knows and understands the problems facing French higher education and research better than any French president in the last decades, and probably better than almost any other current French politician,” said Jean-Marc Schlenker, a mathematician at the University of Luxembourg.

Macron, a one-time investment banker, not yet 40, caught scientists’ attention in February when he called on academics and entrepreneurs who found themselves at odds with US President Donald Trump's administration, to move to the land of innovation he envisages creating in France.

He has been frank about how France could gain from the divisive policies of President Trump, and fallout from the UK leaving the EU, in answers to an online questionnaire of the candidates’ views on science and technology-related issues set up by researchers.

The idea was to get candidates talking about topics that rarely come up in elections. “The policies of Donald Trump and Brexit send negative signals to the world of research and innovation, and this is unfortunate,” said Macron. “But France must see opportunities here to become the world leader in research on global warming and environmental transition.”

This will include providing fast-track visas for foreign climate experts, the president-elect pledged in his online election programme.

In addition, Macron has promised more funding for basic research, particularly the National Research Agency.

“Success rates to the agency had become so small it was almost meaningless, so I’m glad this is getting attention,” said Brézin.

A promise to further modernise the education system by letting universities hire lecturers and researchers without having to wait for the central administration in Paris to approve appointments and to give universities “more latitude” in awarding bonuses to scientists, has not met with universal approval however.

More than 1,500 researchers have signed an online petition against what is referred to as the “renewal and even deepening of the managerial logic” that is driving reform of France’s university system. In particular, there is resistance to moves to increase competition between universities and complaints that companies are granted R&D tax credits while labs at universities are closing.

Macron has expressed concern about science teaching in France’s schools, saying his government will offer “an ambitious plan for mathematics,” encourage universities to expand the opening hours of their libraries, and take action on the “significant failure rate” of students taking undergraduate university degrees.

There is a need for new kinds of curricula and degrees for young people, to better equip them for the new realities of the workplace, said Thierry Coulhon, president of the University Paris Sciences and Letters (PSL), who was an adviser to the Macron campaign on research and education. “The incentives need to change, degrees need to be shorter and more professionally-orientated,” Coulhon said.

As economy minister in the Hollande government Macron showed he is tech savvy, notably in delivering a speech at the ‘French Tech Night’ at the Consumer Electronics Fair in Las Vegas in January 2016.

“The campaign was relatively light on digital but I think a majority of the measures he put forward will definitely benefit entrepreneurs – such as more flexible work contracts,” said Roxanne Varza, director of StationF, an incubator billed as the world’s largest campus for start-ups that is due to open in Paris later this year.

“Some measures are not too surprising, like continuing to integrate tech and digital into public services, including healthcare,” Varza said. However she is unsure about a measure to ban smartphones in schools. “I'm torn because I see there are schools that quickly adopt all types of technologies for kids, although it is clear that phones can also cause a lot of distraction in classrooms,” she said.

Parliamentary elections

Whether or not Macron can deliver his policy objectives depends on if his upstart political party can gain enough support in Parliamentary elections on 11 and 18 June.

Macron’s En Marche party was created just 13 months ago. With no established structure or parliamentary history, it will be putting forward scores of unknown candidates for the 577 seats.

If he cannot win a majority, Macron will be forced into coalition, probably with the centre-right Republicans and the centre-left Socialist Party, both of which were thrown out in spectacular fashion in the presidential election.

There may be some horse trading to find allies to buy into his manifesto but supporters are not concerned. “I’m not particularly anxious about who Macron pairs with after the election,” said Coulhon. “Although someone like Le Pen would have been happy with one state university, there was cross-party consensus that higher education is crucial and universities should be given more freedom.”

Brussels agenda

Macron is an ardent supporter of the EU and for his victory speech on Sunday took the stage to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, the European anthem.

He is in favour of more joint EU investment projects and a loosening of budget austerity rules imposed by Germany.

In a nod to protectionism, Macron has called for a “protective Europe” to face down international competition, including the creation of an EU mechanism to control foreign takeovers of important industries.

Macron is against GM crops, even as feed for animals. He has also ruled out exploration for shale gas and is in favour of stricter rules on hormone-disrupting chemicals. He has defended the precautionary principle used in Europe and Canada which requires an industry to establish that a new invention can cause no harm before it goes on the market. This is “a formidable principle” which helps avoid “disastrous consequences of technological errors for human health or the environment,” Macron says.

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Related subjects: France, Science policy