PARIS—Concern over France's ballooning public deficits seemed momentarily forgotten at a meeting here yesterday where nine clusters of universities and schools presented a series of lavish projects, some already in progress, to renovate and expand their rundown facilities. The construction boom is part of Opération Campus  , a multi-billion-euro initiative aimed at helping a select group of schools and universities across France compete internationally and improve France's dismal performance in university rankings.
So far, the government has earmarked €5 billion for the plan, a campaign promise by President Nicholas Sarkozy during the 2007 election; €3.7 billion came from the sale of shares in Electricité de France, and the rest from the Investments for the Future Program, also known as the Big National Loan. It will add another €3 billion under agreements with regional authorities, while more funding comes from local governments, the National Research Agency, and public-private partnerships.
Yesterday, the steering committee for the entire operation held its first meeting, where nine of the 12 selected clusters—in Aix-en-Provence, Bordeaux, Grenoble, Lille, Lorraine, Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg, and Toulouse—presented an overview of how they're using the windfall. So far, work has begun on 17 projects, with 18 more to follow soon; they range from new or extended labs to student housing, landscaping, and sports facilities.
Many are eye-catching. Montpellier Sud de France University will build a brand-new, curved building  for its faculty of medicine, desiged by French architect Jean-Michel Ferry. Bordeaux University is having its Cour Leyteire garden relandscaped by Debarre Duplantiers—a firm that won praise for transforming Bordeaux's dilapidated waterfront —while Toulouse University will have an elegant new mechanics research lab  designed by architecture firm Séquences. Work at the remaining three clusters, which were chosen only in April and are all in the Paris region, will start later.
"Never has so much money been spent on transforming our universities," the new French higher and education minister, Laurent Wauquiez, boasted during a brief appearance at yesterday's meeting. It's not just a question of giving universities a facelift, he added; the idea is to break down barriers to foster multidisciplinary work and ensure "a real campus life."
The plans have been criticized for being elitist and reversing the French tradition of equal funding for all universities. "The government is creating rich universities so it can forget about the others," biologist Alain Trautmann told Science in 2008 .
But the face-lift will help make lure talent from abroad, says Farid Ouabdesslam, president of the Joseph Fourier University, which is part the Grenoble cluster. At his university, 15% of the scientists and teaching staff members are from outside of France, compared with a national average of 8% to 9%. "Our aim is to recruit more European researchers who have worked in the United States," Ouabdesslam says. "Improving working conditions will help."