French researchers warn against restricting immigration (2024)

With Rassemblement National leading the polls ahead of Sunday’s French election, its stance on immigration is a concern for the science community

French researchers warn against restricting immigration (1)

Jordan Bardella, leader of the Rassemblement National’s election campaign. Photo credits: Philippe Buissin / European Union

Leading voices in academia and the start-up community are warning of the risk posed to international collaboration, researcher mobility and evidence-based policymaking in France if Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National (RN) comes to power in the upcoming election.

RN is leading the polls ahead of voting on 30 June and 7 July, and is promising to place stricter controls on both illegal and legal immigration if it wins. That could have a major impact on science in a country where 42% of PhD students come from abroad, according to figures from Campus France.

“The scientific community in France is very worried,” Alain Fischer, president of the Académie des Sciences, a scientific body founded in 1666, told Science|Business.

He argues that pressure from the far-right has already been felt, with the government proposing earlier this year to require international students to pay a deposit, a policy which was later thrown out by France’s Constitutional Council.

Last week, the Académie published a statement defending the free movement of students and researchers. “The isolationism some are calling for would seriously harm scientific research, international cooperation, and therefore innovation capacity, knowledge transmission, and our country’s influence in the world,” it says.

In an open letter published in Le Monde on Sunday, Fischer and 800 other researchers and health professionals, including the heads of the CNRS and Inserm research agencies, stressed the importance of the “mixing of researchers and students of all origins”, and warned that “a science that doesn’t circulate, that isn’t transmitted, is a dead science”.

RN’s stance on immigration is not the only worry for Fischer, who was in charge of France’s COVID-19 vaccination strategy. At that time, Le Pen, leader of RN in the National Assembly, acknowledged that vaccines are effective at preventing serious cases of COVID-19, but spoke out against the vaccination of children and the introduction of health pass measures.

“It’s not certain this kind of government would rely heavily on scientific expertise to take decisions on various subjects such as climate, energy, health, or artificial intelligence,” said Fischer. “Imagining these people are in power during a new pandemic, I don’t know what would happen.”

France is not the only country in Europe where science is under threat. The new far-right-led coalition government in the Netherlands recently announced cuts to research and innovation funding and plans to cap the number of foreign students. “This kind of party has never particularly liked research or scientific culture,” Fischer said. “Just like the Netherlands, we can expect cuts to research funding.”

Global innovation race

France’s leading start-up and investor association published an open letter warning of the threat nationalism poses to the country’s position in the global innovation race.

“The priority is European integration, diversity of talent, and the attractiveness of international financing. Not the return of nationalism, nor the temptation of the extremes or of isolationism,” France Digitale said in the letter, which was signed by over 200 people from business.

Jean-Pierre Corniou of the Systematic Paris Région deep-tech ecosystem, says workers from countries such as Tunisia and Morocco play “an essential role” in French start-ups, particularly in digital innovation.

But Corniou is equally concerned about the plans of the left-wing New Popular Front to reinstate the wealth tax abolished by president Emmanuel Macron, and to scrap his 30% flat tax on income from interest, dividends and capital gains. The plans represent a return of France’s “old demons, where we see innovation as the responsibility of the state”, he said.

“It’s certain that if one or the other comes to power and is able to implement their programme, it would be very bad news for people like us whose sole mission is to stimulate innovation,” Corniou said of the New Popular Front and the far-right, which are expected to be the two largest forces in the new Assembly.

Macron has made innovation one of his key priorities since he was elected in 2017, notably through the €54 billion France 2030 investment plan and the Choose France campaign to attract foreign investment. Corniou says he is worried that this “hard work” of transforming France’s image into that of a country that’s open to private innovation will be lost.

When it comes to research, in 2020, the government adopted the ‘loi de programmation de la recherche’, which includes measures to boost research funding and increase researcher salaries. “It’s progress, but still largely insufficient,” said Fischer. Research in France remains too fragmented, “without a global vision”, and with too little scientific expertise in political decision-making, he said.

In December 2023, Macron announced reforms to create a presidential science council to advise on policy and give national research organisations a greater role in steering research programmes at a national level. But Fischer said, six months on very little has come of the plans and he does not expect research to be a priority of the next parliament. Adding insult to injury, in February, the government announced a €900 million cut to the research and higher education budget for 2024.

How the manifestos compare

The different parties’ manifestos were hastily put together following Macron’s shock decision to dissolve parliament after his party’s defeat in the European elections, and are therefore lacking in detail across the board.

There is little mention of research and innovation, although this is nothing new, says Fischer. The importance of scientific research is not recognised “by the political class or by citizens” in France, he said.

Here is how the programmes compare:

Rassemblement National

RN’s manifesto features a number of policies with implications for research and innovation, although these are not costed and do not address the risk of talent shortages resulting from the party’s hardline stance on immigration.

The manifesto pledges to build more nuclear power stations, including small modular reactors. RN, led by 28-year-old MEP Jordan Bardella, also wants to overturn the EU ban on selling internal combustion engine vehicles from 2035. Instead, there is a vague pledge to “incite French carmakers to develop affordable, clean vehicles”.

Bardella has said the party would stop construction of new wind farms, but has not specified whether this would also apply to solar farms, as Le Pen said in 2022.

There is also a pledge to create a sovereign fund to direct people’s savings towards “strategic sectors, industry and innovation”, with returns guaranteed by the state.

New Popular Front

In response to the RN’s lead in the polls, France’s main left-wing and green parties came together as the Nouveau Front Populaire, with a common programme that has a major focus on the environment.

The manifesto includes commitments to support renewable energy industries and introduce a plan to reach net zero emissions by 2050. That goes beyond the commitment adopted at an EU level, although very few details are given.

The alliance also wants a more ambitious research programme law and to launch a reindustrialisation programme to “bring an end to France and Europe’s dependence” on third countries in strategic sectors such as semiconductors, pharmaceuticals, electric vehicles and solar panels.

Renaissance

Science also gets a passing mention in the manifesto of Macron’s Renaissance party. “We will continue to invest massively in research and technologies, particularly in health,” it says. The party will continue to “simplify the life of researchers”, to pursue the France 2030 plan and to “continue welcoming renowned researchers, doctors, and high-potential students, as well as the workers our economy need.”

Les Républicains

The centre-right Les Républicains party has been too preoccupied with internal divisions over a possible alliance with RN to come up with a common programme, but its manifesto for the recent European elections included several mentions of research and innovation.

It proposed doubling the EU’s research and innovation budget for 2024-27, and aiming to spend 4% of European GDP on research by 2030. The party specifically highlighted the importance of innovation in developing alternatives to pesticides and alternative energy sources.

French researchers warn against restricting immigration (2024)
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