People celebrate with a French national flag during a rally in Nantes, western France.

An election-night rally in Nantes, France.Credit: Loic Venance/AFP via Getty

Scientists in France have expressed relief that the right-wing party National Rally (RN) was defeated in yesterday’s parliamentary elections. But the absence of a clear winner presents uncertainty for scientists, and many do not believe that the new government will make a positive difference to research and higher education.

RN had been tipped to achieve a majority after winning the first round of voting on 30 June, and scientists feared that this could spell cuts for research budgets, restrictions on immigration and the introduction of broad climate scepticism into France’s lower house of parliament, the National Assembly. But the party came a surprise third in yesterday’s run-off vote, trailing the left wing New Popular Front (NPF) and the centrist Ensemble — an alliance that included President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party. Neither of the two leading groups won an outright majority, and they must now negotiate to form a government.

“We have avoided a catastrophe,” says Alain Fischer, president of the French Academy of Sciences. “It can now be hoped that international scientists will continue to work in France.” But it is unclear whether the result is a real win for researchers, he adds. “We do not know who will govern, but I don’t expect there to be much change in policy for us. Science and education were absent from the European and French parliamentary election campaigns, and budget constraints mean that research will not be a priority.”

Far-right fears

Last month, Macron called a snap election for the National Assembly after his party and its allies suffered a resounding defeat in the European Union parliamentary elections. Scientists have been vocal about the potential implications of a far-right victory. An op-ed in the newspaper Le Monde, signed by Nobel laureates and hundreds of other scientists, warned against restrictions on visas for researchers and students, and threats to academic freedom, among other issues.

“The RN has represented a danger for our sector for a long time,” says outgoing research minister Sylvie Retailleau. “You only have to look at what happened to higher education and research in Hungary and Poland after the far-right won power there.” Hungary’s universities have become increasingly less autonomous over the past few years.

The prospect of a RN victory posed a “threat to international cooperation and to funding, including control over foundations”, Retailleau adds. “Isolation is not an option. We cannot function without the free circulation of researchers, students and ideas.”

The RN’s programme called for a rapid, short-term increase in public spending, which “would squeeze research and other investment. Humanities and social sciences, climate science and the energy transition would suffer the most. Several RN politicians are openly climate sceptic”, says Retailleau.

Cautiously optimistic

The result of yesterday’s election allays some of these fears. “The research ministry will probably continue to exist, whereas it would almost certainly have disappeared if the RN had won the election,” says Patrick Lemaire, who is president of an alliance of French learned societies and associations.

Lemaire believes science will fare better with new leadership than it did under the Renaissance party. With the NPF forming the biggest parliamentary group, the new government might focus more on environmental and energy transitions, and support research and higher education better than its predecessor did, he adds. Lemaire also hopes it will use scientific knowledge to inform public policies.

Other researchers are less upbeat. Boris Gralak, general secretary of French National Trade Union of Scientific Researchers (SNCS-FSU), had feared a much worse election result, but still doesn’t have high hopes for French science in the years ahead. “Twenty years ago, all major industrialized countries understood the need to invest in research,” he says. “Germany, the US, China, Japan and Korea all increased spending, but France did not. The impact started to be felt here 10 years ago, and unless radical action is taken, the numbers of publications, researchers and doctoral students in France will continue to fall.”

“The new government, without a clear majority, will have other short-term priorities.”

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