Friday, February 18, 2011

L'Association Française des Fundraisers

Well, I suppose that something as Anglo-Saxon as extracting lucre from private donors can only be rendered in franglais: l'Association française des fundraisers. I learned about this organization from an article in Le Figaro. So it seems that the sacrosanct concept of "equality" in higher education will be nibbled away at the edges rather than confronted head on. This is as it must be in France, as I discover every time I bring this subject up. Suggestions such as charging tuition or introducing selective admissions are routinely greeted with cries that such heresies are anti-egalitarian, anti-republican, and anti-French. Yet one's head has to be buried deeply sous le pavé, dans le sable, to fail to see the glaring inequities in the existing system, not only between the universities and the grandes écoles but between the better- and worse-financed universities. The acceptance of le fundraising will only exacerbate the inequities without imposing any fairness on the selection and retention process.

We read, moreover, that "sur quatre-vingt-trois universités, 39 fondations ont depuis été créées, qui auraient levé, au total, environ 80 millions d'euros." I had to rub my eyes once or twice. Could millions possibly be a misprint for milliards? Alas, no. I know that we have a warped perspective on these things in the US, but really, 80 million for 83 universities? Better than nothing, I suppose. But ask a young microbiologist, nanotechnologist, or condensed matter physicist what it takes to start up even a modest lab. Job candidates in the US arrive with laundry lists of necessary equipment that often add up to more than $1 million. And this money is supposed to be coming from French industry, which presumably knows what things cost. Here is further evidence, if any were needed, that France, for all its lip service to the importance of R&D in securing the country's economic future and capitalizing on its very real advantages in human capital, has yet to get serious about what it takes to be competitive. With all the recent talk about holding down wage increases in order to meet the German challenge, you'd think that someone would recognize the urgency of meeting the longer-term challenge of remaining near the technological frontier. A visionary leadership would recognize this as a top priority. Instead, we have l'Association des fundraisers.

Crescendo

Le timing, as they say in French, could not have been better. Dominique Strauss-Kahn landed in Paris for the G20 just as a new poll was published putting him ahead of Sarkozy 61-39 in the second round of the 2012 presidential election. I am reminded, however, of the adage of American presidential politics that goes like this: "Whom the gods would destroy they make the frontrunner." DSK has nowhere to go but down, and down he will surely go once he gets into the race. But the new poll does suggest that the Right's effort to paint the IMF head as the representative of the "ultra-caviar" Left, outsider, Jew, capitalist tool, etc., has only boosted his ratings.

These really are rather foolish, if obvious, taunts coming from the party of Sarkozy and Copé, but, hey, any port in a storm. Sarkozy's problem in the end will be not to widen the gap that already exists between DSK and the left of the Left but rather to differentiate himself from DSK, whose basic view of the economy is not so different from his, but whom voters are likely to choose as the more competent of the two in achieving his ends. That, too, may be an illusion, but Sarkozy knows better than anyone that elections are won by appearances, not realities. And he will remember better than anyone that, in order to win in 2007, he had to differentiate himself from Chirac, whom in many respects he resembled, by investing familiar formulas with a sense of renewed energy and can-do-it pragmatism. In 2012, DSK will be the challenger, a position that offers certain advantages in a period of serious voter discontentment.