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French cabinet reshuffle switches science minister

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The nomination this week of Christine Lagarde, France’s finance minister, as head of the International Monetary Fund has prompted a cabinet reshuffle in the ruling conservative government, resulting in a change in the minister for science and higher education. Lagarde’s vacated ministerial position was filled by François Baroin, 46, former budget minister and government spokesperson. The two positions he’d held were in turn filled by Valérie Pécresse, 43 (right) – a promotion for a rising star in French politics who had been science minister since president Nicolas Sarkozy nominated his first government in 2007 (read my 2008 interview with Pécresse here).

The new science minister is Laurent Wauquiez, 36 (below), who was previously junior minister for European affairs, under the foreign affairs ministry. Wauquiez’s biggest recent claim to fame is perhaps the uproar he created by describing minimal welfare benefits for the poor as a “cancer” in French society. So we can perhaps look forward to some undiplomatic gems in his interactions with researchers, although it would be hard to rival the president himself when it comes to a talent for getting researchers’s backs up – see “”http://blogs.nature.com/news/2009/02/entente_pas_cordiale.html">Entente pas cordiale."

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Pécresse’s legacy includes overseeing the introduction of the independence of French universities from state control, and a hyperactive series of reforms including the shifting of the financing of research from rolling grants to competitive grant proposals. She also oversaw the initial disbursement this year of €11 billion in new university funding, part of a €35-billion economic stimulus package — the grand emprunt, or big loan, now renamed ‘Investments for the future’ — announced by President Nicolas Sarkozy in December 2009 (see my articles on this: here, here, and here). Pécresse’s other achievement is simply having survived as science minister for so long – in French politics any attempts at profound reform of the universities has long been a political ejector seat. Although her policies have not always been popular with scientists, she has often deftly overcome resistance to impose reform where her predecessors had stumbled. As such, Wauquiez has big shoes to fill. France will hold presidential elections next year, though, so his spell as minister is likely to be largely about maintaining a holding pattern.

Meanwhile, I’m sure that French scientists abroad will be cheered to hear that for the first time France has created a junior ministry for French expats. Their interests will be in the hands (or perhaps arms) of junior minister David Douillet, a former judo Olympic gold medallist.

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