French research lays down gauntlet

March 12, 2004

A three-month campaign by French researchers to reverse swingeing budget cuts and end blighted career prospects for young staff culminated in the resignation of more than 2,000 key workers on Tuesday.

In the shadow of the Gothic splendour of the Hotel de Paris, leaders of the researchers' action group Sauvons la Recherche announced that at least 976 laboratory directors and 1,110 research team leaders had resigned their administrative tasks. A sea of rank-and-file researchers from institutes ranging from the elite to the obscure cheered the news.

Alain Trautman, Sauvons la Recherche's key organiser, claimed that half the directors at the three most important research agencies - CNRS, Inserm (medical research) and Inra (agronomic research) - had resigned. Although their research will continue, their refusal to do administrative tasks threatens to paralyse key institutes such as the Curie Institute and Pasteur laboratories.

It was from the Hôtel de Ville that, in March 1871, the red flag proclaimed the existence of the ill-fated Commune. If, 133 years ago, the anti-monarchist cause pitted Frenchman against Frenchman, leading to a bloodbath that exceeded the terrors of the first French revolution, the researchers of March 2004 seem to have the people behind them in their battle with the struggling government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

In a poll in this week's Liberation newspaper, more than four out of five of those questioned supported the researchers. Only 12 per cent expressed indifference to the campaign and just 5 per cent were hostile towards the researchers.

Mr Raffarin, who faces a tough challenge in regional elections at the end of this month, regretted the weakening of France's international scientific reputation and declined to make concessions beyond those already rejected by the researchers as inadequate.

The campaigners challenged President Jacques Chirac to meet their demands by a new deadline of March 19, when they will call mass "citizens" demonstrations in support of their cause - two days before the elections.

Mr Raffarin reiterated that the government has promised €3 billion (£2 billion) for research from now to 2007, but the campaigners want more than promises of jam tomorrow. The sticking point remains 550 formerly permanent research jobs that have been downgraded to contract posts.

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