Jacques Valade, 57, was appointed January 22 to succeed physicist Main Devaquet, who resigned after his proposals to restrict student entry to French universities triggered large-scale and violent protests last fall. The protests appeared also to reflect a deeper unhappiness with the policies of Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, whose conservative party came to power last May with an extensive agenda to undo five years of socialist rule under President Francois Mitterand.
Valade had been deputy mayor of Bordeaux, Chirac's home base, and a senator in the French Assembly. He supported the expansionist policies of the last government toward research funding, and is said to be very interested in forging closer ties between scientists and private industry.
Much of the unrest within the scientific community can be traced to the decision by Chirac to follow the advice of some of his more extreme advisers to move quickly in reversing the direction of government, including French science, under Mitterand. His actions to date have included large cuts in research spending, and a redirection of existing funds from domestic to military projects.
A relatively modest attempt to reform the university selection procedure proved to be his biggest mistake, causing his personal popularity to drop from 58 to 39 percent in three months and hostility toward his government to rise to a staggering 65 percent. As the death of a student protester became a potent symbol of protest for the Left, Chirac abandoned his initial decision to stand firm and granted all the students' demands, withdrawing the universities bill in the process.
The students' sucess encouraged the trade unions to push for better pay and improved working conditions, leading to a long strike by the transport unions. Chirac's image as a nononsense leader that can deliver on his promises now seems in tatters, leaving French scientists to hope that Valade will be able to secure their future regardless of the fate of the man who appointed him.