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Top French university criticised over course on Emmanuel Macron

Sciences Po says seminars explore 'phenomenon' of French president's meteoric rise to power

French President Emmanuel Macron's rise to power and policies are the subjects of a course introduced by the Sciences Po university. via AP
French President Emmanuel Macron's rise to power and policies are the subjects of a course introduced by the Sciences Po university. via AP

France’s most renowned university has aroused controversy by offering a course devoted to the life and meteoric rise to power of President Emmanuel Macron.

Sciences Po says Mr Macron’s personal and political achievements are “an intriguing and insufficiently explored phenomenon”.

But critics suggest the course embraces the “cult of personality” in politics and avoids challenging the president’s contentious policies.

Twenty-five students enrolled when the Parisian university’s satellite campus at Reims, in north-eastern France, introduced the course in the last academic year.

Sciences Po is now advertising another series of seminars for the new academic year at Reims but says there are no current plans to introduce them at its main Paris campus.

The university believes there is a powerful case for examining the phenomenon of a man’s attainment of high office despite relatively short experience of politics and none of being elected until he comfortably defeated his far right opponent Marine Le Pen in 2017.

When elected at the age of 39, Mr Macron was the youngest president in French history.

Nicholas Dungan, the author, academic and political commentator who presents the Macron seminars, encourages students to consider the president's swift political ascent and the way he has handled such crises as the disruptive "gilets jaunes" or yellow vest protests and France’s response to Brexit.

“No subjects were taboo but in 10 two-hour working sessions it's impossible to cover everything,” said a Sciences Po spokeswoman.

The objective, she said, was to provide a basis for analysis and understanding, not opinions or personal judgments. “Wouldn't it be surprising if Sciences Po didn't offer a course on Macron?” she asked.

Mr Dungan declined to comment. “I write about Macron as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council [a non-partisan American think tank on international relations] but it would be inappropriate for me to comment on what is a Sciences Po course.”

In common with most post-war French presidents, Mr Macron is a graduate of Sciences Po, obtaining a master’s degree in public guidance and economy in 2001.

One professor remembers him as “a brilliant pupil”, very mature with “original and well-constructed thinking” and an obvious knowledge of his subject.

But as the president slowly recovers from the damage caused to his public approval ratings during the yellow-vest revolt against his policies, some critics claim the course brings Sciences Po into disrepute.

Claire Secail, an author and researcher at France’s National Centre for Scientific Research, tweeted that the seminars were “unworthy of such an establishment”, declaring that they “personalised more than contextualised” their subject.

She also deplored the course’s “risible” required reading list. One of the books, by the journalist and broadcaster Brice Couturier, is dismissed by the president’s opponents as a hagiography. Sciences Po pointed out that critical works were also included in the list.

One student from the first course, quoted by Checknews, an online offshoot of the left-wing newspaper Liberation, said: “This is not a course where we judge his politics but we consider how he got there, how he dynamited French political parties despite never having been elected ... we ended the course with knowledge, not a negative or positive opinion on Macron.”

Another student added: "Before the course, I had the impression that Macron was a progressive liberal and outsider in politics but as the seminar progressed, I began to think his ideology was flexible, shifting according to the challenges he faces and the goal he has set for himself, but also that he is a product of the establishment.

“I got the impression the course was designed more to understand Macron’s policies than to form an opinion on them.”

Sciences Po said the course was intended for second-year undergraduate students in the Euro-North American programme at Reims.

Of the 25 students in the first series of seminars, 15 were full-time at Sciences Po and 10 on exchanges. There were 13 French nationals and the others included Australian, British, Canadian, Singaporean, Spanish and US students.

Responding to another criticism, that all the lectures were in English, the university said this was consistent with the vast majority of the university’s non-language Euro-American courses.

The Sciences Po website makes it clear students are expected to read French fluently and have a reasonable grasp of the spoken language.

The university spokeswoman said confidential evaluation by Reims students revealed “a high level of satisfaction”.

She said that no assistance or information was sought from the presidential Elysee Palace or Mr Macron’s party, La Republique en Marche. “Nicholas Dungan proposed the course in the spring of 2018, created it himself and taught it himself in the winter/spring semester of 2019.”

An opinion poll In August showed Mr Macron’s approval rating to have climbed back to 34 per cent, the same level as a year earlier. It slumped by 10 points during the yellow-vest unrest, which began last November but has now largely fizzled out.

Updated: September 12, 2019 06:07 PM

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