National front candidate Marine Le Pen looks to appeal to scientists

16 Feb 2017 | News
Beyond the focus on immigration, Le Pen’s bid for the French presidency has broadened to matters scientific and environmental. Science|Business takes a look at the policies she proposes and asks if that will endear her to scientists

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s extreme right-wing National Front (FN) party and member of the European Parliament, has added several research and innovation concerns to her list of campaign issues in a bid to broaden her appeal ahead of the presidential election – with little noticeable success.

In her 144-point manifesto, Le Pen promises to raise research spending by 30 per cent, cut pay roll tax for small businesses, encourage insurance funds to invest more in venture capital, and aim for a zero-carbon economy. With just over two months to go until the first round of voting in the French election, the anti-euro candidate remains comfortably ahead in the polls for the first round of voting, though is then expected to lose in the crucial second round in May.

Her pledges mark a continuing effort, started in her position as MEP, to go beyond her party’s usual focus on immigration, Islam and globalisation.

In the European Parliament, Le Pen, who sits on the Industry, Research and Energy committee, has a reputation for prefacing most votes with “J’ai voté contre” (I am voting against).

But under her leadership FN has engaged as much as mainstream parties on science and innovation, as part of a strategy to de-toxify the party once headed by Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, a convicted racist.

Le Pen has championed research into alternatives to animal testing, and can claim some success for pushing it up the EU’s agenda in recent years. She has also called for stricter rules on hormone-disrupting chemicals, spoken out against industry-paid scientists advising the EU on fracking, and called for a proper EU-level debate on gene-editing technologies.

However, despite the FN leader’s noticeable engagement on a range of science issues, there’s one – admittedly small – group of potential voters she isn’t reaching: Scientists, themselves.

The FN’s claim that the EU is responsible for a lot of bad things and its promise to massively reduce migration to a net 10,000 people per year, makes it difficult to seduce a highly mobile class of people which draws a lot of funding from Brussels.

Their support is expected to flow instead to one of Le Pen’s other challengers – independent centrist Emmanuel Macron, right-wing conservative François Fillon, or hard-left Benoît Hamon.

“The best predictor of the Le Pen vote is educational attainment. The higher the degree the lower the support,” says Nonna Mayer, political scientist and far-right expert at Sciences Po. “So scientists vote for her far less than the [wider] population.”

Two challengers to Le Pen’s political left, Macron and Hamon, are the more likely to earn scientists’ vote.

“Intuition and [reference to election] literature suggests that French academics lean overwhelmingly to the left,” said Joël Gombin, a politics professor at the University of Picardy.

Among the challengers, Macron has made the most outward show of support for science, calling on researchers based in the US who find themselves at odds with the Trump administration to take refuge in France.

Hamon meanwhile has urged action on climate change and proposed to tax robots. Fillon, whose campaign has been hit by various embezzlement and tax evasion claims, is likely a turnoff for academics, with promises to cut public spending and scale back public sector jobs.

Le Pen record in Brussels

Le Pen’s speeches in the European Parliament cover areas beyond FN’s traditional topics of immigration and crime.

Unlike the eurosceptic UK Independence Party, whose members consistently vote against many research and innovation policies, FN’s voting history shows that its MEPs are more engaged with the EU’s research and innovation policies, and more likely to support than oppose them.

Last year Le Pen and colleagues called on the European Commission to step up support for research into combating the bacterium Xylella fastidiosa, which has led to a rapid decline in olive plantations in Southern Europe. Tackling the problem has become one of the main challenges of the Commission’s health directorate, DG SANTE.

Le Pen has hit out at “pious” statements from the Commission on how researchers can combine Horizon 2020 and regional funding, arguing that there is no adequate explanation for how people should go about this. Her party is also sceptical about “the current trend of assigning universities performance targets to the detriment of the quality of education, which could in particular jeopardise the teaching of the humanities.”

Where Le Pen is further from the Parliament’s centre of gravity is on the broad issue of protecting native industries. Maintaining manufacturing jobs is a persistent theme, with demands for stronger restrictions on imports of Chinese solar panels and US unconventional gas.

The FN leader, a recent convert to green technologies, has previously warned that the Paris climate change agreement, signed by 190 countries, will “accelerate the de-industrialisation of Europe”. Her demonisation of genetically modified crops, and the EU’s perceived role in promoting them, carries a similar populist flavour.

Le Pen appears to admire several pro-business laws passed in the US, suggesting last year that the EU apes America’s Small Business Act.

She has always favoured more scrutiny of the European Investment Bank, which she says should conduct “a European employment impact assessment in respect of each investment project outside the European Union and inform Parliament, the Council and the Commission before any loan is granted”.

Companies should also be made pay back money they receive from Brussels if they use loans to re-locate jobs, FN says. In addition, a share of public procurement in every member state should be shielded from foreign competition.

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