In the spring and summer France's universities were paralysed by strikes by academics and students. The trigger for revolt was the research revolution proposed in January by the right-wing President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Describing the present top-down framework as 'infantilising and paralysing', Sarkozy outlined a selective approach that, in his opinion, would make universities more cost-effective by switching the emphasis to applied research and increased private-sector participation. Specifically, he argued, these changes would address France's poor performance in international rankings where only one institution, Ecole Normale Superieure, makes it into the top 30 universities in the world (as against 14 for the US and seven for the UK according to the latest Times Higher Education Supplement table).
In concrete terms these reforms meant earmarking 12 universities out of 85 to become France's international centres of excellence while increasing competition between staff, whereby 'research productive' lecturers would teach less. Similarly, money would no longer be given automatically en bloc to the country's leading research agency, the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). instead the CNRS was to organise programmes where academics would have to make bids for funding.
Given the way in which Sarkozy was taking on so many shibboleths, opposition was predictable. Historians were at the forefront of these protests. Sylvie Thenault, for example, is one of the leading figures in the new generation of historians on the Algerian War (1954-62). She has written on the way in which repressive mechanisms became enshrined in the law during that war and published an acclaimed history of the conflict. She has a full-time post at the CNRS. She is opposed to the Sarkozy reforms because, for her, they symbolise an end to France's tradition of research as a public service and its replacement by a competitive, 'Anglo-Saxon' system. This, she argues, will threaten specialised areas such as archaeology and medieval history because they do not fit into Sarkozy's narrow definition of applied research: 'Historians felt particularly affected,' she says,' as history cannot be profitable, like all the social sciences and humanities. History, like literature or philosophy, must be defended as the symbol of knowledge, against the managerial and financial considerations that guide the government's education and research policy.'
Another historian angry with Sarkozy is Nicolas Offenstadt at the Sorbonne, well known for his work on the role of war and peace in France from the Middle Ages onwards. A leading figure in the Sorbonne occupation in March this year, which ended with riot police forcibly ejecting staff and students, Offenstadt and other colleagues from the history department had earlier staged a mock trial of Sarkozy on the streets of the Latin Quarter in front of hundreds of onlookers. …