New minister appeases strikers

April 9, 2004

François Fillon, France's new minister of education and research, is giving priority to defusing the research crisis dogging the government.

Less than 48 hours after the government reshuffle that followed disastrous regional elections, Mr Fillon and his junior minister for research, Francois d'Aubert, met the heads of the big national research organisations, university presidents and leaders of the committee set up to seek a solution to the dispute. He was due to meet representatives of the action group Sauvons la Recherche this week.

It was clear from Jacques Chirac's presidential broadcast last week, during which he said researchers' demands were "justified", that the government would have to make sweeping concessions. Nearly 320,000 scientists and supporters have signed an internet petition, and more than 3,500 laboratory directors and research team leaders resigned their administrative duties in a protest against frozen research funds and the axing of tenured posts for young researchers.

Before accepting the post, Mr Fillon insisted on sufficient resources to settle the dispute.

On Monday, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the prime minister, promised a new strategic and financial framework for research. He said legislation would be introduced before the end of the year, and France would fulfil the European objective of devoting 3 per cent of its gross domestic product to research by 2010.

Mr Fillon inherits his predecessor Luc Ferry's reform to give universities more autonomy and to formalise the introduction of the European higher education structure. This was deferred last year after unrelated teacher protests. Public-sector pension reforms introduced by Mr Fillon, who was then minister for social affairs, employment and solidarity, were among teachers' grievances.

Mr Fillon, 50, is a political heavyweight, unlike Mr Ferry who has left the government. He was minister for higher education and research for two years from 1993, when he tried to introduce legislation giving universities more independence. It was rejected by the Constitutional Council. Mr d'Aubert was also a junior secretary of state for research from 1995-97.

The researchers' union SNCS-FSU said last week the previous Fillon-d'Aubert periods "marked the beginning of the decline of French research", when spending fell from 2.4 per cent of GDP in 1992 to 2.21 per cent in 1997.

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