Researchers fight retirement law

February 21, 1997

DOZENS of France's top researchers have banded together to fight a law forcing them to retire at the age of 65 instead of 68.

About 100 researchers in the top "class one" and "exceptional class" echelons have had notice to quit at 65 in line with other grades in a cost-cutting exercise.

They include Luc Montaignier, discoverer of the HIV virus, who gets a one-year reprieve under a special clause because he has three children. He is chair of a defence committee set up by the top researchers to challenge the move.

The retirement measure has been adopted at three national research institutes, the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the health institute INSERM and the agricultural institute INRA.

Guy de The, a CNRS epidemiologist and secretary of the defence committee, said: "We are laboratory directors. It's a huge waste of resources to close a laboratory overnight."

At the CNRS, 86 research directors are to go, 38 of them in key areas of the life sciences, particularly biomedical research.

"An alternative would be to save money in other ways. A 0.7 per cent cut in the CNRS's high administrative costs would save the same amount," said Mr de The. "It was so shocking to receive a letter telling us to get lost. If they want retirement at 65, fine. Do it progressively, study the impact - but you can't change the rules in the middle of the game," he added.

The change is unfair, argue the researchers, because top-grade university professors are able to work until the age of 68. They also point out that their departure will not create jobs for younger staff, a view which puts them in conflict with their union, the SNCS, which supports retirement for all at 65 in order to create jobs.

Despite this difference of opinion, Jacques Fossey, SNCS secretary general, sympathised with the researchers: "We oppose the brutal manner in which these laboratory directors have been told to go; laboratories will close and it is unfair to select three institutes."

Many of the top directors also disagree with the union policy of equal treatment for all and the job-for-life ethos in research institutes.

"Some researchers should retire at 30, others at 90," said Mr de The. He and other defence committee members have held a press conference and agreed to appear on television to argue their case. They are also writing to MPs and senators asking them to reverse the clause, contained in a law on public sector employment passed in December, which puts an end to the special retirement age.

"We will also look for international support. The stupidity of the French government needs to be known abroad - research is not a priority of the present government," said Mr de The.

The start of the defence committee's campaign coincided with a government "youth employment summit" to find ways to solve the job crisis for young people. The government announced plans for graduate-level "first work experience" training sessions lasting four months, paid Pounds 200 a month and counting towards a degree.

Heads of business and industry promised that 150 of France's biggest firms will announce a target number of training places for the scheme within two months.

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