Asbestos forces Paris evacuation

July 26, 1996

The French capital's biggest university campus has been thrown into turmoil by a surprise commitment made on Bastille Day by President Jacques Chirac to move out all 40,000 students before the end of the year.

Asbestos contamination at Jussieu campus affects 20 kilometres of corridors and 220,000 square metres of the premises, making it Europe's largest building in need of decontamination.

Two universities, Paris VI and Paris VII, share the site with the Institut de physique du globe. Some 10,000 academic, administrative and technical staff work there.

Mr Chirac's promise to evacuate the site aroused reactions of scepticism and even anger from the Jussieu anti-asbestos committee. It has been campaigning for decontamination work to be undertaken in phases with students and research laboratories moved to on-site prefabricated premises, in order to minimise disruption.

The committee and academic and student unions voiced fears that a total evacuation could lead to the selling off of the prime river-bank site in the Latin Quarter to property speculators. They are calling for a commitment to keep the two universities at Jussieu. The president's announcement followed France's ban on almost all production and new use of asbestos from 1997.

That decision was taken within hours of the release of a report by the national health research institute INSERM, which predicts nearly 2,000 deaths in France this year due to exposure to asbestos.

Just days before the presidential announcement, the vice chancellor of the Paris universities, Daniel Vitry, announced a first phase of decontamination in one wing of the building starting in Febuary 1997.

Lecturer Michel Parigot, the anti-asbestos committee chairman, said: "It does not surprise us that this announcement was made in the summer vacation. That is always when decisions are made. We were going to take the issue to court this week.

"We say the issue of decontamination must remain completely separate from the question of any removal from the site," he added. "It is purely a matter of public health and safety."

Academic unions have voiced concern about the problems of removing sensitive scientific equipment and have called for decontamination rather than removal for the research laboratories.

The two university presidents concerned appear less hostile to any removal from Jussieu but anxious to remain inside Paris.

After a meeting with city officials, they welcomed "the municipality's commitment to keep Jussieu's intellectual and scientific potential within Paris".

The education ministry had set up a contact group representing all involved parties which has begun a series of meetings aimed at reaching a consensus decision.

Minister Francois Bayrou promised: "Key decisions will be taken before the new term and whether or not they concern the site, removal or decontamination work, all parties will be informed and involved.

"All decisions will be taken with complete indifference to pressure groups."

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