PARIS – The sprawling campus of the École Polytechnique, one of the best engineering schools in the world, has long been a magnet for major French industrial and energy companies looking to attract some of France’s finest minds.
When it was announced last year that oil and gas giant Total was building a research center on campus southeast of Paris, it seemed like a natural fit.
Instead, it sparked a riot. Hundreds of students voted against the research center. At a time when engineers and scientists were about to lead the way into a new sustainable world, they argued, among other things, that the project was unduly influencing a company that continues to be the world leader in fossil fuels.
“I find it unsettling to be influenced by Total, who has a rather biased vision of the energy transition,” said Benoit Halgand, 22, who is in his senior year. He added the company would “plan to use oil and gas for many years”.
A spokesman for Total said in a written response that the group is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050 and that its research center “has the sole goal of accelerating innovation and research into low-carbon energies”.
The clash at the École Polytechnique was just the most recent clash in France’s elite locations, long viewed by ambitious students as the path to success. Now students, alarmed by a warming planet, are challenging the companies they see as potential future employees.
“By going to class, by working, we are part of a world that we denounce,” said Caroline Mouille, a 23-year-old engineering student in Toulouse, southern France. “The cognitive dissonance is enormous.”
Frustrated by the inequality between the world they dream of and the world they are offered, students are putting pressure on universities to put climate change and other environmental issues at the heart of their curriculum. Some schools have taken steps in this direction, but critics say this is nowhere near enough.
The environment has become a top concern in France, a country where climate change protests took thousands of teenagers to the streets in 2019 and where President Emmanuel Macron recently announced a referendum to add environmental protection to the constitution.
The growing environmental movement at France’s most prestigious universities or “Grandes Écoles”, the traditional training center for executives and high-ranking officials, is having a profound impact on the next generation of the country’s elite. The conflict has pitted students against consumerism and what they consider to be for-profit, some of the largest French corporations, including L’Oréal.
Student activism has been rare in the past, so calls for change have surprised many, especially at the École Polytechnique, overseen by the Department of Defense and where students who are considered members of the armed forces are usually subject to confidentiality.
Mr Halgand said environmental concerns among young people had created “quite a new criticism” of today’s economic and social systems.
“In the past, engineers often had the idea of providing technical services,” he said. “Today we ask ourselves, ‘Why? What are the ecological and social effects behind it? ‘”
In 2018, a “Manifesto for an Ecological Awakening” written by students at top universities called for “putting ecological transition at the center of our social project” and collected around 30,000 student signatures in just a few weeks.
At the center of their demands was a stark reality: environmental issues are largely undervalued in higher education. A 2019 study by the think tank’s The Shift project found that 34 French universities had less than a quarter of degrees offering courses on climate and energy issues, and most of them didn’t make such a class compulsory.
A flood of open letters from students has prompted universities to rethink their teaching from top to bottom – often ruthlessly.
“Our training,” says a letter recently signed by around 2,000 students and alumni of HEC Paris, one of the best business schools in Europe, “does not sufficiently integrate ecological and social issues and at best reduces them to” negative external effects “and in the worst case on “negative external effects” marketing opportunities. “
In response to student demands, some universities have begun to revise their curricula. Two years ago, the École Polytechnique introduced a compulsory three-day seminar on climate change for every new student. The Lyon National Institute of Applied Sciences has committed to revising its teaching to educate all students about environmental issues.
Matthieu Mazière, director of studies at the Mines ParisTech engineering school, said that in addition to professors’ aviation, the students also questioned the content of courses. “They force us to question ourselves,” he said.
However, critics say the survey did not go far enough.
“We feel we have understood and they did not understand,” said Lise-Marie Dambrine, a graduate of an institute for political studies.
Cécile Renouard, a philosopher who teaches at several universities, said that environmental courses in higher education “are not always radical enough or systemic enough”.
“The challenge is also to show how environmental issues invite us to look back at all of our issues,” she added.
In 2018, Ms. Renouard founded the Campus de la Transition or Transition Campus, an alternative academic institution that teaches a range of subjects, from business to law, through environmental lenses.
It has drawn around 700 students to its campus, an 18th-century castle about 40 miles southeast of central Paris, surrounded by gardens where students grow leeks and pumpkins that will eventually end up in the pots of the campus canteen .
The Transition Campus has partnered with several universities to train students and recently published the Great Transition Manual commissioned by the French Minister of Higher Education, which puts environmental and social justice issues at the heart of university programs.
Ms. Dambrine, 23, said her experience on the Transition Campus was “a shock” and “made her want to mess things up”.
The students behind the 2018 Manifesto started an organization that regularly challenges large French companies by publishing reports tracing their environmental footprints and asking their colleagues not to work for companies that don’t to change.
“Companies are doing everything they can to recruit us,” said Halgand, a student at École Polytechnique. “So when we tell them, ‘We’re not coming because you’re destroying the planet and because we don’t support the economic system you are in,’ it scares them,” he said.
Unsurprisingly, this approach has met with opposition from both academia and the corporate world. At the École Polytechnique, following student protests, the Total research center was eventually relocated – 700 feet from its original location.
A few months ago, the student organization published a critical report on cosmetics giant L’Oreal. While recognizing the company’s efforts to “reduce its impact on the environment,” it also questioned “the usefulness of all of the group’s activities” – essentially denouncing what the students viewed as pointless consumption.
Jean-Claude Legrand, executive vice president of human resources at L’Oreal, said the company welcomes the drive for environmental change and “we are emphasizing it more today.” However, there is no dialogue with students who are beginning to “question the business world” and question the very existence of the company.
Philippe Drobinski, climatologist at the École Polytechnique, said that a “critical analysis” of the environmental footprint of companies is necessary, but declined a systematic understanding of all problems through the prism of the environment.
Despite his reservations, he praised the student movement and said, “If we wanted things to change, it had to come through them.”