University president’s call to ‘block’ Le Pen sparks debate

Intervention raises questions over use of institutional resources for political ends

April 20, 2022
Paris International newspapers at press kiosk wih newspaper and pictures of French Presidential election candidates, Emmanuel Macron, Marine Le Pen a day after first round of French Presidential election on April 23, 2017
Source: iStock

A French university president has come under fire for using her university email to call on staff and students not to vote for far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in the upcoming presidential run-off.

Incumbent centrist Emmanuel Macron led the field with 27.8 per cent of the vote in the first round, held on 10 April. Ms Le Pen got 23.1 per cent.

Carine Bernault, president of the University of Nantes, stepped into the battle by calling on her staff and students to “block the far right” with their second-round votes on 24 April because “the foundations of our society are in question”.

The text of the email from her university account was shared on social media, prompting criticism from staff and right-wing campaigners.

Sophie van Goethem, a law lecturer at the University of Nantes and centre-right councillor for the city, said on Twitter that sending the letter was an “infringement” of the political neutrality expected of the head of a public organisation.

Jordan Bardella, president of Ms Le Pen’s National Rally party, said Professor Bernault’s letter was a “gross fault” and a “violation of the rules of neutrality”. “Leftist ideology plagues the university. We have new proof,” said Sebastien Pilard, a spokesperson for the failed far-right campaign of Éric Zemmour, who got 7.1 per cent in the first round. Professor Bernault did not respond to the criticisms at the time of going to press.

Writing for the website News Tank Education & Research, André Legrand, a professor emeritus of public law at of Paris Nanterre University, said that while Professor Bernault was free to oppose Ms Le Pen in a personal capacity, it would have been “better to avoid” using university resources to do so.

Christine Musselin, a CNRS research professor at the Sciences Po Centre for the Sociology of Organisations, told Times Higher Education that it was rare for university presidents to make public declarations in favour of a candidate, but that others had previously spoken out against Ms Le Pen and her father, Jean-Marie, the former president of the National Front, a forerunner to National Rally.

“The threat of an election of Marine Le Pen is stronger this time. This may explain why some want to explicitly avoid abstention,” said Professor Musselin, referring to Ms Le Pen’s two previous presidential campaigns. Polling on 19 April put Mr Macron 10 percentage points ahead of Ms Le Pen, a lead he has maintained for much of the past year.

France Universities, a private association that represents university presidents, called for France to vote against Ms Le Pen after the first-round result, having previously asked Mr Macron to grant more autonomy and investment to the sector.

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Reader's comments (1)

A similar thing happened at a UK University during the Brexit referendum. Staff were told not to vote for Brexit.