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.