PARIS—One ripple effect of the arrest in New York of former International Monetary Fund (IMF) Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn on charges of sexual assault is that a shuffling of seats in the French cabinet has led to a new minister for higher education and research being appointed yesterday.
The post had been held by Valérie Pécresse, but after finance minister Christine Lagarde replaced Strauss-Kahn as IMF chief on Tuesday, Pécresse was appointed junior budget minister and government spokesperson. Her place was in turn filled by Laurent Wauquiez, formerly in charge of European affairs.
Higher education and research is Wauquiez's fourth government job in 4 years and his first as a full-fledged minister. He started in 2007 as junior minister without portfolio and government spokesman, before moving over to employment and then last November to European affairs. Wauquiez, who at 36 is the youngest member of the cabinet, was first elected to the National Assembly in 2004 and became mayor of Puy-en-Velay in the Auvergne region in 2008. He began his studies as a historian, and graduated from two of France's most elite higher education institutions, the École Normale Supérieure and the École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which has long been the breeding ground for politicians and top civil servants. President Nicolas Sarkozy is an exception in not having attended ENA.
After his appointment yesterday, Wauquiez, who has studied English, German, and Arabic, tweeted that he was "very happy" to succeed Pécresse, "whose action, notably on university autonomy, is unanimously recognized." It did not take long for other tweeters to point out that the ruling center-right Union for a Popular Movement party may have welcomed the reform, but that others did not. Wauquiez's comment shows "he does not understand the reality of the situation," according to Bertrand Monthubert, national secretary for higher education and research of the opposition French Socialist Party. "University personnel are extremely depressed and wary" as a result of the August 2007 reform, he says.
Pécresse's 4 years as higher education and research minister have been "catastrophic," Monthubert says. Research is stagnating, with spending last year representing only 2.1% of gross domestic product instead of the 3% promised by Sarkozy when he was elected in 2007. "It was time for Pécresse to leave," he adds.
Wauquiez, who triggered an uproar recently when he said that a new social security payment know as the active solidarity income was a "cancer of the French society," was a surprising choice, Monthubert says. He will have "a tough job quelling the research and academic communities' deep fears for the future."
Pécresse rose in Sarkozy's estimation when she succeeded in pushing through university reform, which had been discussed for years, according to the French economic daily Les Echos. The reforms gave universities freedom to manage their own finances, raise funds, and hire staff members. She established herself as the "iron lady with a smile," but instead of being rewarded, she now seems to have been given another test of confidence. Defending the reform, she said in an interview with the same newspaper last month that the number of students in their last year of high school citing universities as their first priority had risen by 13%, and that cash from the government's Investment for the Future program would top up research spending.
She dismissed criticisms that she had concentrated research funding on a few clusters in the Laboratories of Excellence program at the expense of the rest of the country. Excellence will always emerge, she said, and work has begun to help bring improved standards in regions that failed to win funding.
In 2009 Pécresse won the dubious honor of the English Doormat Prize for speaking in English at international meetings in Brussels. She was quoted as saying that English was the easiest means of communication.