The general context
For a long time, France was a country in which various approaches to economics were able to coexist. Thus in the 1970s, regulation theory, an approach that draws on both the Keynesian and Marxist traditions, played a major role. Similarly, at the beginning of the 1990s, the economics of convention, located in the area between economics and sociology, had a lasting influence. This pluralism, in which economics was a genuine arena of argumentation and debate, began to disintegrate in the mid-1990s.
Since then, we have witnessed the increasing domination of mainstream economics, which has finished by marginalising heterodox economists, whether they be post-Keynesians, institutionalists, Marxists or whatever. The situation has now become critical: the very existence of a minimal level of intellectual pluralism in university teaching and research in economics is at risk. The statistics show that, of the 120 professors appointed between 2005 and 2011, only 6 were affiliated to minority schools of thought.
Cf. Document 1 (Statistical note: Evolution of Economics Professors’ Recruitment since 2000 in France – The End of Pluralism)
Obviously, in the light of these figures and the gradual retirement of the previous, extremely diverse generation of teachers and researchers, students wishing to juxtapose mainstream and heterodox approaches or simply to go beyond the generally accepted ideas will no longer be able to find a supervisor and there will no longer be a sufficiently large body of teaching staff to make the master’s programs that meet the needs of such students viable. Thus it is not simply a question of protecting a species on the verge of extinction. There is also a need to safeguard the future of economics itself, since a discipline that curbs its capacity for self-criticism to such a degree is ultimately imperilling its own capacity for renewal. And who can really believe that economics, seven years after the beginning of a crisis that it neither foresaw nor understood, is not in urgent need of renewal?
This situation gave rise to a collective awareness of these perils which led in turn to the founding in 2009 of AFEP (Association Française d’Économie Politique/French Association for Political Economy), whose core aim is summed up in its watchword ‘defence of pluralism in economics’. This association now has more than 600 PhDs in economics in its membership. In order to find a way out of this situation, AFEP proposed that, by way of experiment, a new ‘section’ entitled ‘Economics and Society’ should be established in French universities. It would run initially for a period of four years and its aim would be to promote an approach to economics rooted in the social sciences.
The institutional framework
In order to understand this demand, it should be remembered that, in accordance with France’s Jacobin tradition, entry to and promotion within academia are dependent on the approval of a centralised committee known as the Comité National des Universités or CNU. This committee is elected every four years from the entire body of academics in France. It is divided into 57 sections, which correspond either to disciplines (economics is section 05) or to sub-disciplines such as public law (section 02) or private law (section 01). Thus it is the CNU’s job each year to determine, for the whole of France, those who are qualified to become maîtres de conferences (lecturers or assistant professors) and those qualified to become full professors. Its strategic importance is not difficult to understand, since it lays down the criteria that define who may and who may not aspire to work in academia.
The CNU’s policy in recent years has been to adopt a relatively open set of criteria for selecting junior staff (maîtres de conferences) but to adhere to strict, even excessively strict orthodoxy when it comes to the criteria for appointing professors.
One final piece of information is essential for a proper understanding of the statistical data presented above (document 1). Until this year, the main recruitment channel for full professors was a competitive examination known as the agrégation de sciences économiques, modelled on those held to determine entry to the legal and medical professions. Thus it was essentially the composition of the selection panel (which was appointed by the minister), combined with its selection criteria, that explained the restrictiveness of the recruitment process. This procedure has been scrapped by the ministry, so that now all applications for professorships are decided on the basis of the CNU’s qualification criteria. Consequently, the CNU has become a body of the utmost importance. The aim in establishing the new ‘Economics and Society’ section is to open up the academic career ladder, right up to the status of professor, to economists who have good CVs but are currently being rejected because they do not publish in the journals regarded as important by the current section.
The immediate context
At the beginning of December 2014, the Ministry of Education announced it was in favour of this reform. On the 11th of December, during a meeting with the AFEP, the 13th of January was mentioned by the minister as the date on which she or her representative would make a public announcement at the AFEP conference. The title of the new section was even finalized: it was to be called ‘Institutions, economy, society and regions’.
Among the reasons for this success, the most important, it seemed to us, was the support for this new section emanating from certain quarters within the body of teaching and research staff in economics, since even before its existence 300 of them (out of a total of 1800 academic economists in France) had signed a solemn declaration in which they expressed a desire to join it as soon as it came into being.
Another reason for this success was that it was a balanced proposal. It respected the independence of mainstream economists, since the current section 05 was to remain entirely free to operate according to the criteria it deemed most appropriate. To put it briefly, this reform was to add a new area of teaching and research but not to do away with those already in existence.
Finally, this new section was to be established on an experimental basis. After four years, it would be decided either to continue the experiment or to put an end to it, depending on the results. This ensured there was a set of safeguards in place that could not but reassure the authorities.
And yet on the 13th of January, the education minister’s representative informed the AFEP’s AGM that, after all, it had not been decided to establish this new section. What had happened in the meantime? The announcement of the imminent establishment of this new section unleashed a series of corporatist reactions that were sufficiently strong – violent even – to persuade the ministry to climb down, but without in any way at all calling into question the fundamental diagnosis that pluralism is imperilled. In fact, the nature and, above all, the style of the counter-arguments put forward merely confirm the accuracy of that diagnosis – if that was indeed necessary.
Written by Olivier Favereau and André Orléan
For a summary of the events: cf. Document 2 (Le Monde opinion column)
For an example of the counter-arguments put forward cf. Document 3 (Letter from Professor Tirole)
For a refutation of these counter-arguments cf. Document 4 (The AFEP open letter to Jean Tirole)