Why do French intellectuals "know nothing about science"?

France has always struggled with evidence-based science.

Louis Theroux’s examination of the schooling system for American children with autism made for moving and captivating viewing last night. It would be fascinating to watch him do the same in France.

Being autistic, or the parents of autistic children in France is an appalling experience. This BBC report makes astonishing reading: in France, autism is widely approached through psychoanalysis – sometimes of the whole family. Most of the rest of the world uses an evidence-based approach, treating autistic spectrum disorders by embracing the scientific appraisals of the condition and offering alternative approaches to education. This approach works: the UK, for instance, manages to get 17 times more autistic students into university than France.

The autism issue seems to be symptomatic of France’s difficult relationship with evidence-based science. I first got interested in this notion in 2009 when author Simon Singh tweeted about French rejections of his book examining the case for alternative medicine: “Publishers reject Trick or Treatment? for translation, claiming French don't care about evidence. Argh!”
This week, Singh and his co-author Ernst finally got a French publisher. The thing is, French people are good at science. They are well-educated and know their stuff, according to this European Union report. They are also well-informed about current science. But science remains at arm’s length: it doesn’t make inroads into the cultural life. Here is French primatologist Bernard Thierry talking about the French attitude to evolution: "Nobody in France is against Darwinism. There's just not much interest…Our intellectuals know nothing about science.”
It’s what some researchers have called the “knowledge-ignorance paradox”. According to LSE researcher Martin Bauer, support within a population for science is inversely proportional to the strength of that country’s scientific research. As Bauer and his colleagues put it in this paper, “if the national science base is strong… science initiatives find less support and vice versa.” And, as it turns out, the French are highly supportive of science initiatives – suggesting their science base is actually rather weak.
I can offer some arbitrary and rather unscientific figures to back this up. Here’s the question: how many members of a population does it take to create a Nobel prize-winning scientist?
Taking 1970 as the cutoff for modern times, in Sweden, it’s 1.5 million people per scientific Nobel prize. In the UK, it’s 1.7 million. Germany has a prize for every 3 million people (reunification will no doubt have pushed that figure up). France? Since 1970, one scientific Nobel prize per 5 million people.
It’s a heinously crude measure, obviously. But there’s something in it. President Sarkozy is clearly bothered by French science, and his campaign for re-election includes a push to change the way science is done in France. In this interview with the journal Nature, he points out that France got its research model wrong after the Second World War. “We created agencies separate from the universities to do basic research. At the time, such a set-up was found only in Communist countries, in particular the USSR and China. Now, even these countries have abandoned this model.”
France, he says, has to follow. When it comes to science, vive la difference is no longer an option.
Sarkozy has expressed concern over French attitudes towards science. Photo: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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Macron celebrates 100 days in office with historically low approval ratings

He knows whose fault it is... and it's not his.

Clouds are accumulating over Jupiter. Today marks 100 days in the French presidency of Emmanuel Macron, the cunning “neither left nor right” politician with a grand vision for France who has been compared to the aforementioned king of Roman gods, France’s Sun King Louis XIV, and Napoleon, the last of whom Macron only just loses out to as the youngest French ruler since the Revolution. There’s just one problem with the narrative - the French people don’t seem to agree.

Macron’s approval ratings have plummeted over the summer, to reach an all-time low for any modern-era president's first 100 days of 36 per cent. That’s 10 points lower than his predecessor – and former boss – Francois Hollande, whose nickname right after his election in 2012 was “Flamby”, the French equivalent to a very floppy pudding. It's much lower than Nicolas Sarkozy, to whom Macron has been compared for his relative youth and flamboyant style: at 100 days, “Sarko” was sailing with 66 per cent (though he would fall to 34 per cent during his later “bling” period, never recovering enough for the 2012 election). That's even a point below Donald Trump's own ratings, and the US President is a few steps away from causing the apocalypse.

There are many explanations for this abysmal drop: rows have developed over the summer, including one over a planned housing aid cut and another after the general-in-chief quit over army budget cuts (the general's approval ratings in the row were much higher than the president’s). The French Parliament, which is controlled by his party La République en Marche, has also allowed the government to use rulings to reform the French labour market rather than putting them to a full vote.

But Macron thinks he knows the real reasons his popularity has fallen. MPs from his party are deemed inexperienced, his ministers don’t speak enough to the press and his Prime Minister, Edouard Philippe, “doesn’t leave enough of a mark” on the public. Basically, it's not his fault – nevermind that his vision detailed all the things he is blaming: a renewed Assembly, a very restricive media strategy, and a PM who would remain in the president’s shadow.

To find a similarly unpopular French President near the start of his term, you must go back to 1995 and newly-elected Jacques Chirac’s attempt to makes cuts in the sacred French healthcare system, la Sécurité Sociale, which left voters feeling betrayed. He recovered, topping 63 per cent in 1999, but in 2002 was unpopular again and only got re-elected (with an astounding 82 per cent) because he was facing far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen in the runoff. Remind you of anyone? Actually, even that isn't a favourable comparison, as Macron’s victory over Marine Le Pen last May was much less of a landslide, with 65 per cent.

Not all is lost, though. Now 84, Jacques Chirac saw the tide of public opinion turn in in his favour, at least after his presidency. He has been named "most likeable president" by the French people and has become a meme, notably on the viral Tumblr dedicated to photos of his mandates, FuckYeahJacquesChirac.

Macron’s own Tumblr fans aren’t quite as famous yet, but he will need all the help he can get if he wants his authority to survive past the autumn’s planned social movements.