The Colonial Undertones of French Scientific Research Abroad

Approximately one year ago, a young academic named Jamie Furniss was abruptly fired from a new researching job after just four months. After numerous attempts at obtaining an explanation, Furniss was informed that his employers had no choice but to fire him because he shouldn’t have been hired in the first place. The reason given was his Canadian nationality.

The idea of discrimination on the basis of origin is a convoluted one. Visa inequality, stringent employment requirements and muddled bureaucracies are prevalent everywhere from governments to gap-year programs. It is easy to dismiss these as the status quo, but one must also acknowledge the motivations that put them in place. Colonialism, though it might not be present in a classical sense, is still omnipresent as a mentality – one that has permeated a field known and revered for its alleged objectivity.

Image courtesy of Davius via Wikimedia, © 2014, some rights reserved.

Furniss had been investigating waste and sustainability practices at a research centre in Tunisia operated by the Organisation of French Research Institutes Abroad (UMIFRE). A joint initiative between France’s National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, UMIFRE’s 27 research centres are located from Lima to Moscow but concentrated, not surprisingly, in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa. Despite vast diversity in scope and focus, all researcher and similarly high-level positions are restricted to citizens of France, the European Union, or the European economic zone. At all 27 ground-level research facilities, foreign citizens of France’s ‘partners’ are barred from working as researchers in their own countries and hired only for service positions such as gardeners or sanitary workers. The implications of this policy are starkly obvious, and what initially came to Furniss’ attention as an administrative error resulted in his unearthing of a blatant continuation of a colonial legacy.

Of all European nations, France in particular seems to have trouble relinquishing its status as a colonial power. Its conduct towards its former African colonies and their resources is notorious, but remaining relatively undiscussed is a similar mind-set towards virtually the entire Global South.  Without even including Françafrique, practically no region has escaped its neocolonial perception of non-European civilisation.

A native’s perspective provides cultural knowledge, local connections and a contextual understanding that only a lifetime of personal experience can generate. One would assume that such depth of insight would be invaluable to any institution claiming to conduct ground-level research. Throughout UMIFRE’s network, however, no Peruvian, Iranian, Tunisian, or any other non-European academic is as valuable as one flashing an EU passport. This “Europeans Only” policy is straightforward in its unwritten fine print: citizens of non-western countries, no matter how qualified, cannot compete with their European counterparts even in research taking place on their own soil. The people of Latin America, Southeast Asia and other ‘partner regions’ are acceptable when being scrutinised from the other side of the glass but incapable of bringing a meaningful contribution to the academic table. France can hardly claim a ‘partnership’ and much less an intercultural exchange when the program’s principal achievement is reinforcing the ‘West-and-the-Rest’ divide; perpetuating a sense of ‘otherness’ based on nothing more substantial than region of origin.

Admittedly, UMIFRE’s purpose is to enhance French knowledge and research to benefit its country specifically. However, that provides no reason why local researchers can’t contribute to the pursuit of ideas surrounding their own homelands. In fact, their doing so would arguably make France’s research industry more nuanced, insightful, and competitive. Such an adaptation is hardly unprecedented – institutions affiliated with other European countries, including Germany and the United Kingdom, have become aware of these advantages and omit similar restrictions (though the Council of American Overseas Research Centres does not). There is no legitimate factor preventing UMIFRE from opening itself to similar changes particularly as an institution that prides itself on a contemporary mind-set. More is at stake than just science. France portrays of the UMIFRE program as a form of “scientific diplomacy” and a tool with which to form intercultural connections. Taking this angle renders excluding their ‘partner’ societies from meaningfully participating slightly hypocritical and prevents an isolationist stance from having any apparent benefit. It also adds a partisan element to what has long-since been considered a universal and objective field. If scientific paternalism is what the French government considers diplomacy, that is all too telling of its value system despite the world having greatly evolved since its colonial heyday.

Granted, these research centres were founded during periods of colonialism and subsequent recent independence, so these restrictions may not stem from ongoing deliberate intent but rather a failure to adapt to the changing times. That being said, an offense committed in negligence remains an offense and the organisation has shown no noticeable sign of a desire to address it. Furthermore, Jamie Furniss has proven that his application to his former position clearly stated his nationality – the only explanation is simply that nobody checked. As a white man with a WASP-sounding name, had they assumed he had the necessary European credentials or were they simply more willing to overlook the lack thereof in his case? Would a noticeably ‘ethnic’ candidate have reached as far as he did before being discovered? These questions and more arise, leaving UMIFRE and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs strongly lacking for answers.

On its own, niche situations like these are difficult to process in terms of broader implications. However, when placed in its post-and-neocolonial context, it is quite clear what policies like these are intended to accomplish and what they represent. Decades and a new millennium after France’s colonies gained their independence, viewing non-western individuals as subjects of study rather than pursuers of knowledge in their own right is not only unethical but counterproductive. If France truly wishes to return to its former glory, it must do so by opening itself to the truly global talent pool that advances research worldwide – not by clinging to the legacy of colonial prejudice.


Banner Image: Image courtesy of Thermidorimage via Wikimedia, © 2014, some rights reserved.