The world war of the intellect

A snippet from my dissertation chapter on the French university strike of 2009.

Nicholas Sarkozy was elected President of the Republic on May 6, 2007, and took office on May 16. He appointed Valérie Pécresse, a legislator and former UMP spokeswoman, as Minister of Research and Higher Education, and on May 18th, at a meeting of the Conseil des Ministres (Council of Ministers), officially assigned her to lead a reform of university autonomy. Such a reform had already been widely discussed during the presidential campaign, attracting support from Sarkozy, the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal, and the centrist MoDem candidate François Bayrou. They differed, of course, on policy details. Royal emphasized a “national framework” that preserved more of a role for the French state, and for permanent institutional funding, particularly for research. Sarkozy, according to Le Monde, “wanted to go faster,” shifting research funding and universities alike towards a contract-based, short-term model. But policy differences and political tempos aside, there was a widespread public discourse on the necessity of university reform. “This [traditional university] system worked in its time, but the world has changed”: such was one fairly typical formulation that had appeared in Le Figaro earlier that year, in an op-ed by Vincent Berger, a French physicist active in university governance who later became president of the University of Paris-7 in 2009. In the face of globalized economic competition, Berger explained, “our country must maintain competitive and triumphant industries,” and he argued for closer links between research and industrial production, along with a better “equation” [adéquation] between economic demand and university supply.

The frequency of such arguments in political discourse would give the Sarkozy administration a powerful naturalizing argument for its university reforms, a chance to ally itself with the spirit of its time. Pécresse, as we will see, would frequently cast her reforms as a matter of obvious, objective necessity. But at the same time, there was a discourse of urgency and immediacy about the process. The Sarkozy administration wanted to put in place a number of major state reforms, dealing with everything from the university to labor regulations and criminal laws; and this multiplicity would be amplified by a very rapid governmental timeline.  “We’ll do all the reforms at the same time, and not one after the other,” Sarkozy remarked at the  May 18th meeting of his Conseil des Ministres. The Sarkozy government was also deeply committed to a particular fiscal policy, one typically called “austerity” by its opponents. State spending was to be cut; 50% of retiring state workers were not supposed to be replaced; and national debt was supposed to decrease. Even in such a moment, though, the university and research sector was slated for budget increases. It was said to be the government’s “primary fiscal priority.”

Still, it was generally understood that university reforms, whatever their fiscal and political priority, were a fraught topic. “Even if the chosen moment seems favorable,” remarked an editorialist in Le Figaro, “Valérie Pécresse will have to show great conviction and determination to succeed in such a sensitive subject. Numerous projects, for decades, have been abandoned or emptied of their content, so tenacious are the resistances, so much are they nourished by dogmatism.” In an initial effort to prevent discord, Prime Minister Fillon initially gave assurances that the two most controversial topics, selective admissions (termed “sélection”) and tuition hikes, would not be included in the reform. In spite of this, as Pécresse began official ministerial consultations at the end of the month, however, academic unions were already voicing concerns about the temporality of haste that the government was so attached to.

Thus on May 25th Bruno Julliard, the president of UNEF (the largest student union), would “deplore the short time allowed for negotiations.” The Prime Minister, nevertheless, announced that the university reform would be taken up by Parliament that July. Soon thereafter, the Intersyndicale issued an official communiqué attacking the speed of the reform: “The chosen calendar permits neither a debate about the contents and priorities of a university reform, nor a genuine negotiation with the university community. The signatory organizations [of the intersyndicale] solemnly demand that the law not be hastily submitted during the next special session of Parliament this July.” Pécresse nevertheless continued on the official calendar, calling a meeting of the National Council of Research and Higher Education (CNESER) to review her reform proposals on June 22nd. To her surprise, perhaps, after seven hours of debate, her proposed reform was rejected by the assembled representatives of the university community.

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