Science

Researchers sense apathy towards science in French presidential election campaign


People in Lyon, France, queue to cast their vote for the first round of the French presidential election.Credit: Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty

Before voters in France headed to the polls on 10 April, the two front runners — incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron and far-right challenger Marine Le Pen — saw their approval rates rise following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Energy independence, defence and social reforms were prominent issues on the campaign trail and in the two candidates’ manifestos, released last month. Macron sought to position himself as a wartime leader, pledging to boost military spending. Le Pen proposed tax cuts to ease the sting of rising inflation and said she’d hold a referendum on cutting immigration rates.

French presidents are elected in two rounds of voting. Macron and Le Pen came top in the first round with 27.8% and 23.1% of votes, respectively. That means they’ll go head-to-head in the second round, which will be held on 24 April, and one of them will be tasked with putting their campaign promises into practice by the end of this month.

Amid all the hubbub of these campaign promises, however, one subject seemed to be largely missing from the conversation: science.

“The near complete absence of science and research from the debates is quite striking,” says Patrick Lemaire, president of the College of Academic Learned Societies of France in Rennes, an organization that aims to foster interdisciplinary research.

Other scientists are equally frustrated. “Without even considering the absence of academia and research in the debates, this whole presidential campaign is already vacuous,” says Bruno Andreotti, a physicist at Paris City University.

Voting unenthusiastically

Many scientists are thought to have voted for Macron back in 2017, which analysts attributed to an opposition to Le Pen’s politics rather than any keenness for Macron.

Philippe Askenazy, an economist and senior researcher at the French national research agency CNRS, expects that most academics will once again lend their vote to Macron in the forthcoming second round. “I’m convinced the vast majority of us will overwhelmingly vote for Macron even if we don’t support him in our hearts,” he says.

Andreotti and Lemaire are disappointed with the lack of detail on science in the candidates’ manifestos. When the candidates did discuss issues related to science, it tended to be environmental policy. Le Pen outlined a desire to see France ban imports of raw materials resulting from deforestation, and she wants to pursue energy independence by extending the lifespan of France’s nuclear capacity. Macron’s manifesto called on scientists to play their part in fixing environmental problems and promised to continue building six nuclear power plants and increase solar power by a factor of ten. The centre-right candidate Valérie Pécresse had advocated better compensation for farmers when taking into account their carbon-storage practices; and the far-left candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, said he would dedicate €100 billion (US$108.6 billion) to ecologically and socially useful investments.

In policies that relate to higher education, the candidates focused more on student life than on research. Macron promised to reform student grants. Le Pen, meanwhile, said she would ensure that foreign students have to leave France after completing their studies.

Macron, for his part, did also say research should be a national priority, but his most controversial proposal on science was to increase the autonomy of universities to pursue their own research aims by reorganizing the funding system. This would come at the expense of centralised research agencies such as the CNRS. Some researchers are concerned that such a move could end up making France’s research efforts less coordinated.

Indifference

But these issues and policies were largely pushed to the sidelines during this presidential race. The reason for this apparent lack of interest in science and research among the presidential hopefuls, posits Lemaire, could be depressingly simple: “The French public might not be very interested in science.” Data published in March by the Palace of discovery, a science outreach institution based in Paris, back up his theory. More than 3,200 French people were surveyed on their attitudes towards science, 22% said science was one of their main interests. And 40% of those surveyed expressed distrust in the scientific process, saying that they didn’t think the research community is able to independently validate its findings.

France, like much of the rest of the world, is grappling with a number of other pressing concerns — all of which are competing with science for attention. There’s the war in Ukraine; a cost-of-living crisis; the economic challenge of an ageing population; Le Pen’s ties with Russia; and anger over the Macron government’s spending of public funds on private consultants.

“When you look at all this, science just isn’t a central concern for the general public,” says Askenazy. “I think the research world has to take some responsibility for this. We haven’t spent enough time promoting the topic of research and science during the election.”

Vaccine nationalism

It could be that researchers assumed science would be a major talking point in the election, given that France is currently dealing with an increase of COVID-19 cases following the lifting of most restrictions in March. Not long ago, in 2020 and 2021, science was indeed front and centre in the public discourse amid a global drive to create a COVID-19 vaccine. France’s failure to develop a vaccine, however, might be contributing to the politicians’ reluctance to campaign on matters relating to science, says Askenazy. Sanofi, the pharmaceutical giant based in Paris, led the charge to develop a French-made vaccine but experienced delays, plagued by poor results in clinical trials. The Pasteur Institute in Paris abandoned its COVID-19 vaccine plans in early 2021.

The roll-out in France of foreign-made vaccines, such as the Oxford–AstraZeneca formulation, was subsequently beset with logistical errors and interruptions. The scientists who developed the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine even accused Macron of trying to reduce demand for their vaccine by criticizing its effectiveness.

Had a French company managed to create a viable COVID-19 vaccine, says Askenazy, science might have been a major talking point in the current election. “If France had been able to make a vaccine, it would be an element of French pride,” he says. “Macron would have discussed it in his manifesto as proof that his science policies were working, and I think Le Pen would have also trumpeted the vaccine as proof that the French nation is strong.”

Results from the first round of voting mean it’s the end of the road for the other presidential hopefuls. Pécresse, who described herself as one-third Margaret Thatcher and two-thirds Angela Merkel, a reference to the first female leaders of the United Kingdom and Germany, respectively, had vowed to return France to fiscal responsibility by spending less. But she received just 4.8% of votes. Perhaps the biggest surprise in the first-round results was how well Mélenchon performed. He complained that the free-market economy was “chaos” during his campaign and said that he wanted to raise the minimum wage, lower the retirement age and limit fuel prices. He won 22% of the votes, which wasn’t enough to secure him a spot in the second round, but he got much closer than the polls had expected him to just a couple of weeks earlier.

This article is part of Nature Spotlight on France, an editorially independent supplement. Advertisers have no influence over the content.

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