Eight archaeologists last week plunged into the Seine from a bridge in Paris in a mock mass suicide to protest against reforms they claim will endanger archaeological research and destroy their profession.
They were among about 80 public-sector archaeologists demonstrating against legislation that will allow private contractors to bid for "preventive excavations". These are exploratory digs to check whether the land is of archaeological interest. They have to be carried out before projects such as motorways, airports and housing estates can be built. Developers, whether public or private, foot the bill for the excavations.
Recent finds include Gallic horse tombs near Clermont-Ferrand and a cemetery dating from 300-200BC in a hospital compound in a Paris suburb.
But the system has faced problems. Before 2002 the law had been vague, with some transactions breaking down when developers refused to pay for digs, and archaeologists' official status was unclear. A new act established a statutory framework and set up the Institut national de recherches archeologiques preventives (INRAP) to coordinate excavations and employ 1,500 archaeologists to carry them out.
It also formalised charges, leading many developers to complain to MPs that they were too high. In December last year, parliament voted to cut the charges by a quarter. This move was strongly condemned by archaeologists'
unions, which said INRAP would not be able to operate.
Since the reductions took effect in January, many archaeologists on short-term contracts have been fired and work on some sites has been halted.
Now the government has approved new legislation, intensifying archaeologists' anger. While the service will ostensibly remain public, private firms will be allowed to bid for projects and developers will choose who to employ.