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Foreign interference at the university, the other threat



A “watch” report. This is how the senatorial information mission can be defined “On non-European state influences in the French university and academic world”. While eavesdropping via Pegasus spyware is qualified by the Élysée as fact “Very serious” if they are proven, parliamentarians complete a first part of their hearings, before the summer suspension of work. Their objective ? Better prevent foreign interference in universities, a phenomenon still little studied, even if it worries more and more.

“Some states are tempted to use their growing presence in our campuses and laboratories as a lever for geopolitical influence, with little regard for academic freedom and scientific integrity”, said rapporteur André Gattolin, when setting up the mission on July 6. In question, mainly China – ” 80% of the problem », He sums up The cross -, but also Turkey, certain Gulf countries, or even Russia.

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In addition to experts and academic officials, the senators interviewed the director general of Campus France, the body responsible for bringing in students
foreigners – the most numerous are Moroccans, followed closely by the Chinese. They will receive the intelligence services, very busy with Pegasus, at the start of the school year. Just like the results of the questionnaire they sent to universities, in particular to those in charge of international relations. It is a matter of listing the abuses they have observed and the means they have deployed to respond to them.

From entryism to financing

In fact, the practices of influence or interference are diverse, fromentry into scientific research laboratories for the financing of teaching chairs or theses to relay political messages on certain sensitive subjects. “Countries like Turkey may be tempted, for example, to finance work geared towards the Armenian genocide”, illustrates André Gattolin. The Confucius institutes of China, with which the University of Lyon-3 or that of Paris-Nanterre have ceased to collaborate, are also in the sights of senators, like hundreds of more recent Chinese programs, such as “1000 talents” .

Faced with these multiple strategies, Europe and France are insufficiently vigilant, according to André Gattolin. “There has long been a beatitude of Europe, which considered itself a space of exchange in which China was a partner, but certain alerts have changed the rhetoric for two to three years”, explains the senator who cites this example: the award of European Marie Curie scholarships to certain Chinese students without scientific justification.

France behind on funding control

France, according to the rapporteur, is particularly behind on the issue of research funding. Recalling that an American researcher from MIT was arrested for having received € 600,000 to € 700,000 per year from China to communicate his research, he calls for more control in France: “A French researcher who visits several times in the country which funds his research, for example, should attract attention”, he emphasizes.

Awareness has been earlier in the UK, US and Germany. In Australia too, where legislation now regulates university cooperation and where parliament has opened an investigation into university interference practices. “We are working to strengthen the resilience of sectors of Australian society most exposed to foreign interference, including education and research.”, explained his ambassador to France, Gillian Bird, to French senators on July 21. Among the objectives identified by the Australian authorities, she detailed, the theft of technologies, obtaining commercial advantages or the control of international speeches.

What safeguards should be put in place in France? At this stage of their work, senators are already considering three directions. Strengthen the control of research funding and possible conflicts of interest. Monitor more closely the nature of the work produced with funding from abroad, particularly in basic and applied research. Appoint an interministerial coordinator on foreign interference. Senators are expected to draft a best practice guide for the university community by the end of September.

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