French Science Minister Loses Job in Cabinet Reshuffle—Or Does She?

Thanks, see you soon. Benoît Hamon (left) and Geneviève Fioraso.

Thanks, see you soon. Benoît Hamon (left) and Geneviève Fioraso.

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French Higher Education and Research Minister Geneviève Fioraso was among the political victims of a major defeat for the Socialist Party (PS) in local elections last Sunday. In the wake of the electoral disaster, President François Hollande ditched almost half of his Cabinet, including Fioraso; the new prime minister, Manuel Valls, announced yesterday that career politician Benoît Hamon will succeed her in a new superministry that also encompasses primary and secondary education.

But Fioraso’s role may not have ended. There was strong speculation in Paris yesterday that she may be appointed secretary of state under Hamon next week, a position in which she may keep most of the responsibilities she had as minister. Hamon himself hinted at a prolongation at a handover ceremony, according to Le Monde, when he told her: “Thank you very much … see you soon.” Fioraso said that “the adventure hasn’t ended yet.”

Fioraso, who became higher education and research minister after Hollande was elected president in May 2012, is best known for pushing through a new law that aimed to simplify the national landscape for research and higher education, give the government a greater role in coordinating science, and make France more competitive. It was drafted after a massive, nationwide, and often tumultuous round of consultations.

Hamon, described as a discreet politician from the left wing of the PS, was an assistant minister within the French Ministry of Economy and Finances until Tuesday. He entered the political arena in 1986 when he led student protests against a bill that threatened to limit access to higher education and create a two-tier university system.

The reshuffle comes as a relief to some. Rumor had it that the research portfolio might be split off from higher education and could be placed within the former industry or economy ministry. That would have been “stupid,” says Alain Beretz, president of the University of Strasbourg, because French universities and research organizations work closely together and universities have both teaching and research missions. Beretz welcomes the new setup, in which all levels of education are brought together under one roof, because it may help increase student participation in higher education.

*Update, 10 April, 5:09 p.m.: Geneviève Fioraso was nominated secretary of state for higher education and research on 9 April. Prior to  her appointment, a petition criticizing the research and higher education law that Fioraso introduced last summer had gathered more than 9300 signatures. Trade unions of university professors and researchers called on the new government to make the nomination of a new secretary of state an “occasion for real political change, the one that [Fioraso] failed to bring.”