French Researchers Protest Retirement Law

PARIS--A group of 20 French scientists held a news conference here yesterday to demand immediate suspension and eventual repeal of a new mandatory retirement law. The law, enacted by the French Parliament in December, could force 100 of France's leading scientists to retire up to 3 years earlier than anticipated.

Reportedly passed by a handful of deputies in the middle of the night, the law removes scientists from the list of senior government professionals allowed to work beyond the age of 65. "It shows in what contempt scientists are held" by the French government, said virologist Luc Montagnier, leader of the Pasteur Institute team that first isolated the AIDS virus.

The new law, which applies only to scientists in the giant research agencies such as CNRS and INSERM, would force senior scientists to retire at age 65 or 66 rather than the current ceiling of 68. The government argues that the measure is needed to make room for young researchers. But Montagnier and his colleagues disagree, saying that most of the money saved on salaries will be spent on pensions and that the law may break up dozens of labs whose directors are still active in research. Montagnier himself, chief of a CNRS lab at Pasteur, may have to retire in August 1998 at age 66. Pasteur cancer virologist Guy de Thé, 66, said that the Pasteur Institute might not exist if the law had been in effect a century ago: Pasteur was 65 when he founded it in 1888.

The government has not yet responded to the scientists' arguments. However, Montagnier is reportedly scheduled to meet today with the secretary of state for research, Franois d'Aubert.

Researchers have formed a Collective for Action and Information to press their demands. They are not impressed with offers from the CNRS to allow them to continue in an emeritus status with no direct research role. "We don't want to just sit at a desk in the corner and lead seminars," says Montagnier.