Engineers clash with minister

October 22, 1999

PARIS. French education minister Claude Allegre is refusing to reappoint the director of the Ecole Centrale de Paris, one of France's prestigious state engineering schools.

The governors voted unanimously to reappoint Daniel Gourisse, Centrale's head since 1978, when his post came up for renewal last month.

But notice of a vacancy for the school's directorship appeared the next day in the Journal Officiel, the government publication which records information such as new legislation and official appointments.

The minister, who has ultimate control over the school, had ignored the governors' decision.

An extraordinary general meeting of the 17,000-strong association of former pupils last week threw its support behind 60-year-old Mr Gourisse.

It criticised Mr Allegre for the "scorn" with which he had treated the view of the governing board, which includes government appointees such as industrialist Jacques Attali, the chairmen of SNCF (the French Railways) and EDF (French Electricity), and the steel firm Usinor's managing director.

Protesters claim that Mr Allegre wants to remove the autonomy that has maintained the high reputation of the Centrale and gives it freedom to enter business partnerships.

These provide two-fifths of the school's ¤.4 million (Pounds 17.9 million) annual budget, giving the 400 engineers it trains each year good conditions of study combined with affordable fees.

Associates fear that the minister plans to change the entrepreneurial school into a research establishment with an academic, rather than an entrepreneur, at its head.

On behalf of Mr Allegre, the education ministry denied the board had been scorned or that the school's autonomy disrespected.

While governors could give an opinion on candidates only the minister could make a nomination, it said.

Mr Gourisse had been director of the Centrale for more than 21 years "a situation totally atypical in higher education and research establishments", which generally provided for two terms of five years, not renewable. Neither the school nor Mr Gourisse had been targeted, it said.

But Mr Gourisse, who was president of the Conference des Grandes Ecoles between 1985 and 1993, crossed swords with Mr Allegre, when the latter was chief adviser to education minister Lionel Jospin.

They disagreed over reforms to the preparatory classes, which train for exams to the grandes ecoles, and over projects for closer links between the elite schools and the universities.

Expressing determination to take further action if necessary, the graduates' association has planned another general meeting tomorrow, which is the closing date for nominations to the directorship.

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