Academic Global Trotters: Comparison of the Italian and French Public Law Academics in the UK, by Marie-Claire Ponthoreau

The United Kingdom is a land of welcome for European academics and this is also true for public law specialists. But for how much longer? Among those who have settled here, some are choosing to leave the UK since the Brexit. It is not necessarily a question of returning to their country of birth. My purpose is not to highlight the very recent flows but those of a recent past that has seen French and Italian public lawyers settle across the Channel in a significant way since the 2000s. While public law does not exist as a positive law in the UK (but the discipline is developing: see M. Padilla, Droit public et doctrine publiciste au Royaume-Uni. Regard critique sur un objet à (re)construire, Ph.D Thesis University of Bordeaux, 2021), French and Italian public law academics are nevertheless pursuing academic careers there. From the Italian case, the comparison between the attractiveness of French and British universities is revealing of the greater flexibility of the latter.

The attractiveness of UK universities

First of all, the number of Italian academics who have joined the Anglo-American world is greater than the number of those currently in the French university system. Two observations can be made in this regard.

The first one has to do with the importance of language: French is no longer well mastered by the new generations and this plays in favor of English. Thus, it is not so much the common law legal model per se that is attractive, but what Anglo-American culture represents in the globalized world and English as a language of communication.

The second one is specifically about Italian export. It remains marginal in France, whereas it is much more massive in common law countries. There is one factor that plays an important role: in the United Kingdom, the university recruitment system is decentralized and not centralized as in France (i.e., national with specific procedures for controlling the quality of applications). This is also true in the United States.

The gap between Italians pursuing a career in France (5) and those in the United Kingdom (at least 14) even widens in comparison with Ireland (5). The latter country has a much smaller university system (only 6 law schools compared to 54 in France, not counting overseas universities and private universities) and yet the number of Italians is identical. A country of emigration, Ireland is now a land of welcome since the Brexit. On the other hand, very few Italians cross the Atlantic (3 in the United States, one of them part-time). However, they have a stronger presence in common law countries than the French: there are at least 13 French in the United Kingdom, but none in the United States and barely any in Ireland (only 2). French academics do not export much except to Canada or more precisely to Quebec, even though publicists are very rare: French people in Quebec are very rarely public law academics; they are above all specialized in civil law, comparative law, labor law, private international law; they sometimes did their PhD thesis under joint supervision and then pursued a career in Quebec universities. The training of public law academics in France does not seem to meet the academic standards expected by these universities, which are very much rooted in Anglo-American culture and therefore open to interdisciplinarity. On the other hand, the civil lawyers by training are lucky because of the presence of the civil law tradition in Quebec (it is the same for the State of Louisiana in United States: Professor Olivier Moréteau joined LSU in 2005 but remains the only case that can be cited since Dominique Custos returned to the University of Caen). This is not the case for Italians, who seem to be absent from Quebec universities, if not from Canadian universities (subject to further study: the small inquiry conducted with the help of my colleague and friend, Johanne Poirier McGill University, remains limited to Quebec).

The reasons for this attractiveness 

The language factor appears to be crucial, even if it is not the only one, as the case of Quebec shows. This factor is undoubtedly important in the trajectory of many French colleagues involved in dual degrees (LL.B English Law and French Law as in Essex and Exeter). There are thus not only individual but also collective dynamics.

With regard to the latter, it can be argued that certain “denationalized” places play a role. In the first place, it is the European University Institute (EUI) of Florence that deserves to be highlighted, since this institute of higher education created by the European Communities in 1976 participates in the creation of a culture of legal studies of the European Union, detached from national legal cultures, even if marked by a common-law approach in teaching. The EUI is a transmission belt for young French doctors to European universities and especially to the UK. The Italian university system is undoubtedly more closed, but above all the scarcity of posts leaves little chance of success for ‘externals’ and even pushes Italian academics to leave their own system. The French university is still attractive in spite of everything (under-funding, lack of funding and administrative means, the main evils of the deterioration of working conditions). To our knowledge, only two former French professors of the EUI ended their careers in Italy: Patrick Nerhot, Professor of Philosophy of Law (University of Turin) and Jacques Ziller, Professor of European Union Law (University of Pavia).

The role played by the College of Bruges, in particular its branch in Poland (developed in English for students from Central and Eastern Europe), as well as the Socrates and Erasmus programs must be added to the development of this culture. On this last point, we should perhaps ask ourselves about the back and forth of British academics who have taken advantage of the Erasmus program in their training. This is the case, for example, of Alison L. Young, currently working at the University of Cambridge, who spent a year of mobility in Limoges. This case in England seems rather isolated (in Ireland, David Keane at DCU). Obviously, there is an older case that comes to mind when considering the relationship between UK and France: Professor Bell spent a year shadowing the French Conseil d’Etat in the 1980s. On the contrary, several colleagues in France have a scientific interest focused on British law or broader common law systems. Some have indeed benefited from an Erasmus mobility such as Aurélie Duffy in University College London, Nicolas Gabayet in Belfast or Céline Lageot in Bristol. Others were able to take part in European or international programmes because of their studies at Sciences Po and Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne (such as Thomas Perroud PhD in a joint degree programme with Warwick University) or in a master’s programme at Paris I Panthéon Sorbonne (such as Vanessa Barbé an internship at the House of Lords during her master) or at Paris II Panthéon-Assas (such as Céline Roynier, a semester at Yale Law School) or at the University of Aix-Marseille (such as Idris Fassassi, LL.M., Havard Law School). The English language is now taught from primary school onwards. I have at least two colleagues whose mothers are English teachers (Aurélien Antoine and Vanessa Barbé). Without foreign language teaching, there would be no comparative lawyer. In the wake of René David and André Tunc, many specialists in common law systems were trained in France and not all of them are mentioned here.

While these different initiatives have not profoundly modified the mobility of academics in Europe, which remains more theoretical than real, they have led the United Kingdom (and also the Netherlands) to welcome young professors-researchers trained abroad to teach European law. Some British university centers also serve as interfaces for the integration of these academics from European countries. One example is the Institute of European and Comparative Law (IECL) at Oxford University. Operating mainly on the basis of time-limited fellowships and partnerships with European universities or institutions, the vast majority of researchers at the IECL were, until the Brexit, mainly from European Union countries.

A final factor can be highlighted in the circulation of the European academic elite. Brexit undoubtedly represents a new brake on this circulation. At the same time, the channels already reinvested in common law public law should intensify. On the side of public lawyers involved in exchanges between the UK and Common law systems, the entry of British law schools into a knowledge economy already widely adopted in North America only makes exchanges more fluid. The acknowledged cosmopolitanism of UK law schools should take a less European form in favour of increased exchanges within common law systems. As an illustration, the examples of lecturers such as Paul Yowell or Adam Perry, trained respectively in the United States and Australia, and both teaching constitutional law at the University of Oxford can be cited. It should be noted that cosmopolitanism is primarily a matter of faculty members and students (e.g., more than 30 nationalities represented in the LLB at Middlesex University Law School in London and nearly 15 nationalities represented for just under 50 permanent faculty members: Middlesex is just one example as English universities have experienced significant growth in the number of European and non-European students and academics over the last two decades: see here) but legal education remains focused on national law. Only a marginal place is given to foreign law and/or comparative law (as stand alone modules) at undergraduate level in British universities. Only a few universities stand out as in London: SOAS, Kings College or UCL. Moreover, our conception of comparison is undoubtedly different or partly different according to our legal education and this certainly plays a role and explains in part the differences in conceptions between common law and civil law lawyers. This is a well-known and recognised problem in comparative constitutional law, which I discuss in my book (Droit(s) constitutionnel(s) comparé(s), Paris, 2021, 2nd edition) in particular in relation to the United States. It is quite possible to speak of a comparison “between members of the same family”: the United States and the Commonwealth countries.

Obstacles to be overcome for a more in-depth study

The study would undoubtedly deserve to be completed. It only gives a first idea of the circulation of French and Italian public law academics in the Anglo-American world. In conclusion, however, a few difficulties and perspectives must be pointed out for further research. First, comparison is difficult due to the lack of identical nomenclature in the various countries concerned: for example, criminal law belongs to private law in France, whereas it belongs to public law in Common Law and in Italy, or the British categories are very flexible and can change for strategic reasons from one university to another.

Second, those with dual affiliations are difficult to count. In the same vein, there are academics who have dual nationalities or who have academic backgrounds in several countries, which is increasingly common in a globalized world. A perfect example with regard to the different cases considered in this post (France, Italy, UK) is that of Ivano Alogna, specialised in environmental law: Italian by origin, he holds a doctorate from the University of Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne after having studied in France and Italy, and is now a member of BIICL (London). There are undoubtedly other cases.

Finally, as previously pointed out, the academic personnel in the UK is highly internationalized compared to what is practiced elsewhere in Europe (for example, in my Faculty, there is no foreign colleague, but some are present in other disciplines at the University of Bordeaux): law as a discipline remains highly national, and even more so public law (because it is linked to the State, at least in continental Europe), and this is why I focused on public law academics. If the investigation were to be continued, it would also be worth looking at private law. Above all, if a more thorough inquiry were to be carried out, it would have to verify the consequences of the Brexit on the attractiveness of British universities and the circulation of the European academic elite.

Posted by Marie-Claire Ponthoreau (Professor of Constitutional Law and Comparative Law, University of Bordeaux)

Suggested citation: MC Ponthoreau, “Academic Global Trotters: Comparison of the Italian and French Public Law Academics in the UK”, BACL, available at