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Setting down a new path

When France elected its youngest-ever president in 2017, millions of its citizens were eager to see huge changes they hoped would jump start their declining economy. But, over the past two years, the road has been rocky for Emmanuel Macron, who had faced the unenviable task of implementing drastic economic measures without eliminating state subsidies.

Beyond the headline-grabbing yellow vest movement, Macron remains resolute in making France more competitive and more aligned with stronger, less regulated economies elsewhere in the world.

This year, France climbed to the top five in the AT Kearney Direct Investment Confidence Index, its highest-ever ranking.

“France is an open and welcoming country with no less than 28,000 foreign companies employing around 2 million people. 2018 was the best year in the last five years. We attracted 1,323 new foreign investment projects, which means 25 international companies per week took the decision to invest in France. The numbers speak for themselves. France’s image is improving thanks to reforms being implemented,” Business France CEO Christophe Lecourtier said.

Another objective of the Macron government is to become a major contributor to global innovation. It has provided strong support to “La French Tech,” the name given to the French startup ecosystem. The latest surveys show around 60% of young people want to start their own business, up from just 13% in 2009. To date, France has established more than 300 incubators and 50 accelerators across the whole country.

As the country’s capital, Paris naturally stands at the center of this economic growth. With around 12 million residents, the region accounts for nearly 30% of the country’s GDP and has the highest concentration of Fortune 500 companies in Europe.

Away from Paris, several regions across France have exhibited their own strengths for attracting foreign investment and embracing the new economy.

“The digital and technological transformation occurring in France is felt just as strongly here in Strasbourg. We have built a strong reputation for our competence in innovation,” said Eurometropolis of Strasbourg President Robert Hermann.

This change could not have happened without the realization of France’s educational sector to also adapt to the rapid changes around the world. Some universities merged to forge a more visible global presence and stronger research capabilities.

Minister of Higher Education, Research and Innovation Frederique Vidal shared the logic behind this: “There is a national strategy for research and higher education. It is highly important to be at an international level in order to tackle world issues concerning climate, health, energy, mobility, among others.”

This is in line with national policy: “While we want to achieve better results and be more equitable, at the core, the sector needs to better establish its world leadership,” said Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer.

“As the backbone of the economy, education is crucial in forming minds capable of navigating a world constantly moving,” he added.

Following that path, seven institutions in the Bourgogne Franche-Comté Region joined forces in 2015 to form the Université Bourgogne Franche-Comté (UBFC), a federal research university, which represents a total of 60,000 students and 8,000 staff.

“UBFC is responsible for the implementation of specific structuring projects and programs common to the members’ academic, research and communication strategies. A striking feature of UBFC is the use of a common scientific signature. By going under the UBFC brand, our members increase the region’s excellence and visibility in the global education sector,” International Affairs Director Yevgenya Pashayan-Leroy said.

The increased visibility abroad will help UBFC raise enrollment of foreign students, which surged 140% in its eight English-taught master degree programs last year. In 2019, it will double the number of such programs, all centered on three areas: advanced materials, waves and smart systems; territories, environment, and food; and comprehensive individual care.

While alliances can be successful models, Artois University President Pasquale Mammone stressed that partnerships flourish only if those schools have their own strengths. Artois formed an alliance with its neighbors: Université du Littoral-Côte-d’Opale and Université de Picardie Jules Verne.

“We want more exchanges for international research and for our masters and doctoral programs. We want to be more visible in our major domains of research and applied learning given our expertise in fields such as artificial intelligence, social links, environmental energy efficiency, and heritage and cross-cultural awareness,” Mammone noted.

“Our ambition is two-fold: We want to develop our international activities and we want to continue helping our own region. Artois University is part of the administrative board of the region’s bodies tasked to boost our industries here in Northern France,” he added.

For its part, the University of Bordeaux realized the merits of internationalization earlier than its counterparts. For several years now, it has focused on cultural exchange as well as adopting English as its medium of instruction.

UB runs several multidisciplinary international summer schools that lets students experience life in one of the most renowned regions of France.

Regarded as the most prestigious scientific and engineering school, Ecole Polytechnique wants to supply France and the world with future innovators.

“Sustainable development is at the core of our teaching and research. We aim to provide solutions to the most pressing world issues,” said President Eric Labaye.

In a fast-changing world, engineering schools must ensure its students remain relevant long after they graduate.

“It is important for us to provide holistic growth for the students. We not only train students to get a general sense of all key digital areas, but we also ensure that in the evolution of technologists, the human dimension of innovation is also considered,” President of the Institut Superieur d’Electronique de Paris (ISEP) Jean-Luc Archambault said.

“We value applied learning. In fact, our engineers were involved in 30 of the 100 startups formed in France last year,” Archambault added.

Meanwhile, industry collaboration and internationalization are priorities for ENSEA, a graduate school focused on electrical engineering.

“This year, we are proud to say that 100% of our students received international experience,” Director Laurence Hafemeister said.

“This was a huge jump from our previous rate of 30%. It shows how much we value providing our students the right multi-cultural environment to reach their full potential. We aim to open opportunities for them, whether here with our students or abroad for the French ones,” she added.

Already with 150 international partnerships and 30 double degree programs, ENSEA still wants more academic and industry partners.

France 2019 was prepared for and originally printed in Foreign Affairs magazine.

PDF of the printed report

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