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Student mobility and research at stake in historic French election

Education stakeholders across France have voiced their concern over the influence the rise of the far-right could have on immigration policy and research collaborations.

French election candidates Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel MacronFar-right candidate Marine Le Pen, and centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron, face the final vote for the presidential election on Sunday. Photo: flickr/Rémi Noyon and flickr/Mutualité Française.

"Higher education is of deep concern to all sections of French society"

Centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and far-right candidate Marine Le Pen will go head-to-head in the final round of the French presidential election on Sunday May 7.

French voters will cast their final votes in an historic election that marks the end of a 60 year-long streak of the traditional left-wing and right-wing parties governing France.

Speaking with The PIE News, educators have said that after the anti-immigration torrent which has been running through much of the election campaign, there could be implications for France’s international education sector in the event of a Le Pen victory.

“Madame Le Pen’s program threatens the very foundations of our society, science and our universities”

“We have found Madame Le Pen’s program particularly disturbing because it is directly opposed to our values and our openness to Europe and the world,” said Jean Chambaz, president of Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

If elected, Le Pen says she wants an ‘automatic’ expulsion of all illegal immigrants from France and has vowed to cut legal immigration to no more than 10,000 people a year.

“Her program is very isolationist, looking to drastically restrict immigration, which would certainly make it much more difficult for international students to come to France,” said Chambaz.

Chambaz is also president of the Coordination of French Research-Intensive Universities, an association of 19 university members that collectively enrol 650,000 students a year. The association has been very vocal in its opposition to the far-right candidate.

“The university presidents of the Coordination of Research Universities in France have called for everyone to vote against Madame Le Pen in the second round of presidential elections, as have the national Conference of University Presidents and the presidents of national research organisations,” the organisation’s declaration reads.

“Madame Le Pen’s program threatens the very foundations of our society, science and our universities.”

With the election campaign drawing attention to immigration narratives resembling those which emerged during the recent US election, stakeholders are worried about the country’s image as a study destination.

“Clearly, nationalist politics may well have implications for international students coming to France,” said Tim Gore, CEO of the University of London Institute in Paris.

“France has had great success in attracting foreign students in the past and Paris was thrice voted best student city in the QS polls, so this would be a concern.”

France is the world’s fourth most popular study destination for international students, attracting 309,642 students in 2015/16, according to the latest statistics from Campus France.

“Madame Le Pen has certainly encouraged anti-foreign sentiment,” said Chambaz. “And I would imagine that if she is elected that there are a number of international students who would hesitate to attend a university located in a country governed by the far right party.”

The two candidates’ positions on the European Union sit at polar opposites. A French referendum on membership of the EU, or ‘Frexit’, has been speculated if Le Pen is elected while Macron has vowed to strengthen ties with the EU.

Andrew Kinselle, director at French language school, LSF Montpelier, said in the event of a Macron win, there “shouldn’t be any impact on international relations”.

“He is pro-European, as he reaffirmed in his speech [on Sunday, April 23], and will continue the action of Hollande in this domain,” he commented.

Kinselle added that Macron is also sensitive to the French language and culture, and “defends educational excellence”.

“He should help the promotion of the French language in the world,” he said.

Chambaz has also expressed concerns that higher education research is at stake in the election.

“France has had great success in attracting foreign students in the past”

“We are very active in research that stretches across borders,” he said.

“UPMC’s participation and commitment to European-level programs, whether it’s funding exceptional researchers or working in a public-private consortium such as the European Knowledge and Innovation Communities, our ability to collaborate with our international colleagues is also at risk.”

Markus Laitinen, president of the European Association for International Education, said the election is very important for the continent, particularly after Brexit and recent events in Turkey and Hungary.

“Even though we don’t take a political stance as such, there are some outcomes in all these countries and all these elections that will be more favourable to international education than others,” he said.

“I don’t think there will be any immediate impact [from either outcome] but again this is a longer term development,” said Laitinen.

Similarly, Gore said any changes to international education in France will be hard won.

“Higher education is of deep concern to all sections of French society,” said Gore. “And has proved difficult to reform in the past and undoubtedly will continue to be so into the future whichever candidate is successful.”

As it stands, Macron has increased his lead in the polls ahead of Sunday’s vote.

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