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Banished to the banlieues

Paris' social sciences institutes have been ordered to move to the suburbs. To experience first-hand what they otherwise only talk about. By Wolf Lepenies

Super universities, of the kind Senator Zöllner is planning for Berlin, are not unique to America. They also exist in Paris' Quartier Latin where scientists have been holed up since the Middle Ages. Huddled closely on the Left Bank are, among other things, the Sorbonne, the College de France, the Ecole Normale Superieure, the Ecole des Chartres and the Ecole des Mines. Three scientific institutions which make up the heart of the social and human sciences are under orders to up stakes in the Quartier Latin and move North. Paris, say the critics, will be brain-drained and turned over to business and tourism.

The parties affected smell a government plot. Historians remember Napoleon's liquidation of the political sciences. The three institutions that are being turned out of their ancestral homes in the "Latin quarter" are the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (EPHE), the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) and the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme (MSH). The EPHE was founded in 1868 as a research institute which besides the social and human sciences originally also dealt with mathematics and natural sciences. In 1975 its famous section VI (economics and social sciences) decided to go it alone as the EHESS. The same year saw the founding – as a private foundation backed by the Ford Foundation – of the Maison des Sciences de l'Homme which, with its policy of inviting researchers from abroad, was run on the similar grounds to an institute for advanced study.

Having relations based more on competition than co-operation, the three Parisian institutions have influenced the social and human sciences more than any other university in the world. It was here that the Annales School founded by Marc Bloc and Lucien Febvre found its final resting place from which it continues to influence historiography today. Here too that Philippe Aries, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Jacques Le Goff put a roof over the head of their history of mentalities, that the now 99-year-old Claude Levi-Strauss used structuralism to revolutionise anthropology, that Roland Barthes opened new and surprising perspectives in semiology, Jacques Lacan in psychoanalysis, that Jacques Derrida deconstructed philosophy, that Francois Furet corrected our view of the French Revolution and that Pierre Bourdieu turned sociology back into a useful instrument for social criticism.

The EPHE encampment is in the Rue De Lille, the EHESS and MSH are in the Boulevard Raspail. The huge building they share stands on historical ground. Until 1961 it was the site of Cherche-Midi prison whose illustrious inmates included Captain Dreyfus. During WWII it was used by the Gestapo which had its headquarters in the Hotel Lutetia opposite. The high asbestos count in the quartier on the Boulevard Raspail is a truth universally acknowledged long ago. And the dodgy electrics in the Ecole and the Maison leave them with no option but to move out. The same goes for the EPHE whose building needs full-scale renovation.

Initially the idea was only to move out temporarily. Then the authorities offered the Ecole Pratique to erect a "Cite des Humanites et des Sciences Sociales" in the North of Paris. 65 million euros were allotted to construct a centre for the social and human sciences and 25,000 m2 of floor space. The move was pencilled in for 2010/2012. Now it transpires that the building on the Boulevard Raspail has to be vacated as early as next year. And all three institutions are being told to go to Aubervilliers and share 19,000 m2 between them – 6,000 less that was originally intended for the Ecole Pratique alone.

It was less the anticipated space deficit than the choice of location which raised the heckles of those affected. Aubervilliers, which backs onto the railway line connecting Paris to Charles de Gaulle airport was centre stage of the riots. Here, the oppositional camp protest, there's not a tree in sight let alone a library and everything that made research in the Quartier Latin so pleasant is completely absent from the infrastructure, Brasserie Lipp and cafe Deux Magots for example. Naturally restaurants and cafes do not feature publicly in the arguments of the critics. Instead they point to the unique tradition of their institutions, where educational functions were open to everyone to attend, pensioners, school kids, housewives, and particularly clochards in the winter. None of these people would dream of boarding the train to Aubervilliers because it was getting chilly on the Boulevard Saint-Michel or a new Heidegger interpretation was shaking the Ecole Pratique.

The kerfuffle over location has long since morphed into a dispute about the very nature of the social sciences. Had not life in the modish VI and VII arrondissements long since alienated them from social reality. Would it not do the sociologists, psychologists, anthropologists and historians a power of good to work in the problem zones of suburban Paris, where cars still burn at night. In Le Monde over a dozen professors protested against their uprooting. The vice mayors of Aubervilliers replied in an open letter officially welcoming the "citizen researchers," with a sophisticated appeal to their social consciences. In Aubervilliers the social and human sciences would not be neighbouring with boutiques and cafes but with the "Place du front populaire".

The resistance to the move won't hear any of it. Their protest article in Le Monde was titled "The human sciences are under threat". And it voices the suspicion the "public powers" would shed few tears if scientific disciplines with more opponents than advocates of government policy among their ranks were shunted out of the centre of the city and off to the margins.

Cue: memories of Napoleon. Initially Bonaparte was a close friend of the exact sciences. In 1797, two years before he became consul, the natural science class at the Institute de France voted to make him an honorary member. The artillery officer of the Ancien Regime and the Revolution lapped it up when his colleagues celebrated him as "the mechanic of victory". But among the disciplines which are bracketed under the social sciences today, criticism of Napoleon was burgeoning. In 1803, his last year as consul, he wasted little time in having the "Classe des sciences morales et politiques" at the Institut de France summarily axed. This institution was the forerunner to the three institutes now threatened with evacuation.

Micro-management might be Nicolas Sarkozy's style, but the French president has more pressing issues at hand than the forced evacuation of EPHE, EHESS and MSH. But one thought springs to mind when considering the suggestion that the social scientists should hurry up and become "banlieusards" if they are to understand what they are talking about. For they would be carrying out their research in the centre of social tension which Sarkozy as the former minister of the interior once wanted cleansed with a kärcher. Now the social sciences are expected to effect a similar cleaning act. It's a long time since so much was asked of them – or so much faith invested in them.


This article was originally published in Die Welt on November 8, 2007

Wolf Lepenies (1941) is a sociologist. In 2006, he was awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. He has been the rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin since 1986.

Translation: lp

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