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Macron consolidates electoral victory

June 19, 2017 1:19 PM
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Macron consolidates electoral victory

The party of France’s recently elected president won an absolute majority in its first general elections, with an agenda that included strong support for research.

President Emmanuel Macron shakes hands at a Paris event dedicated to technology start-ups on 15 June.

A wave of fresh faces — including that of Cédric Villani, the flamboyant French mathematician and 2010 Fields medallist — swept to victory in the French parliamentary elections on 18 June. Together with the science- and innovation-friendly policies announced so far by President Emmanuel Macron, who was elected on 7 May, the results have stoked optimism among many in the research community both in France and abroad.

With 43% of the vote, Macron’s newcomer party, La République en Marche! (LREM), completed a political grand slam as it won a comfortable majority of 308 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. That was well over the 289-seat bar needed to control the 577-seat body — even without counting the 42 seats won by its allied party MoDem. The outcome gives Macron a clear mandate to push his ambitious pro-business, pro-innovation and pro-European Union agenda.

The large victory of LREM, whose policies span the moderate left, right and centre, is all the more surprising in that the party was born barely a year ago and announced its list of candidates only on 11 May, just a month before the first round of the elections. Half of them were women, and a majority came had no previous political experience.

Researchers have generally responded positively to the 39-year-old president’s agenda and to the election outcome. The results “are a real hope of dynamism for our country,” says French climatologist Jean Jouzel, a former vice-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Among the newly elected LREM delegates was Villani, who romped home in his constituency of Saclay, near Paris. He won 47.5% of the vote in the first round on 11 June, and just over 69% in Sunday’s run-off. Saclay is home to one of the largest clusters of research institutions in the country, although a multi-billion-euro effort to merge them into a Paris–Saclay super-campus is in disarray.

Mathematician Cédric Villani (here at a Lyon event in September) won more than two-thirds of his district's votes in the runoff parliamentary election.

Macron wants to create a more business-friendly and entrepreneurial environment by lowering corporate charges, simplifying bureaucracy and making labour laws more flexible — something that several predecessors have attempted, mostly without success. He has also said he wants to encourage the country’s industries to focus on sectors such as robotics, artificial intelligence and green technology, which he sees as the industries of the future. He spent more than three hours on 15 June amid robots and drones at the giant international technology show Viva Tech in Paris, where he announced a €10-billion (US$11.2-billion) state fund to invest in start-ups.

Speaking at Viva Tech, Macron said that he intends to put research, education and entrepreneurial innovation at the heart of these plans. He also announced a €50-billion stimulus package to train young people and to modernize agriculture, health care, transport and infrastructure.

In one of his first moves on science, Macron this month launched a programme to attract leading climate scientists to come and work in France, offering 4-year grants of up to €1.5 million for senior scientists, and up to €1 million for younger researchers. The 'Make Our Planet Great Again' initiative has a total portfolio of €60 million — €30 million of new money, and €30 million from a existing research funds. It was launched a week after US President Donald Trump announced that he would withdraw his country from the Paris climate accord.

“Beyond his call for attracting scientists, Macron has shown a deep interest for climate issues,” says Jouzel. “It’s clear that he has made a clear choice on global change issues in line with the Paris agreement.” A particularly hopeful sign, Jouzel says, was the appointment last month of Nicolas Hulot, a popular environmental activist and former nature-documentary producer and presenter, as head of a powerful environment and energy ministry.

The outcomes of the initiative to lure in climate researchers largely depend on whether the US Congress enacts drastic cuts to climate science proposed by Trump, says Robert Socolow, who works on carbon management and sequestration at Princeton University in New Jersey. If that were to happen, the Macron initiative would have “myriad positive effects”, he says, including positions for promising young scientists who are usually the first victim of budget cuts. “France will have the benefit of youthful energy,” he says.

“I’ve several colleagues who have already left the US for the EU in search of, and finding, an environment where science is respected and funding opportunities are more plentiful,” says Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Macron’s offer provided those who were already considering a move with the impetus to do so.”

In a similar vein, Macron last week launched the French Tech visa, a four-year, renewable, fast-track residence permit for entrepreneurs, innovators and investors to work in France. He admitted that the country hasn’t always had the best reputation as a place for nimble innovation, but argued that this was changing. “I want France to be a ‘start-up nation’, meaning both a nation that works with and for the start-ups, but also a nation that thinks and moves like a start-up,” he said.

“I hope he will not disappoint the hopes he has raised,” says Jouzel, “in particular in the area of jobs.”


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