Striking French Scientists Reject Mediation

PARIS—French higher education and science minister Valérie Pécresse presented angry academics a small olive branch yesterday, only to have it rejected out of hand. Emboldened by clear signs that their movement is gathering strength, tens of thousands of protesters were expected again on the streets in Paris and many others cities today to demand an immediate halt to reforms in science and higher education.

The flash point in the current battle is a decree, to become effective in September, that would alter the legal status of university researchers and lecturers. Among other things, the change would give university presidents the flexibility to determine how much time academics spend on teaching versus research, a ratio currently dictated by national rules. Yesterday, Pécresse's ministry announced that she has appointed a mediator to assist her over the next 2 months in her "consultation" with universities on how to implement the plan. But the higher education union SNESup-FSU immediately rejected the offer as a delaying tactic and demanded "complete and definitive withdrawal" of the reforms instead.

The mediator, Claire Bazy-Malaurie, is a chamber president at the Cour des Comptes , a legal body that audits government accounting and management. A specialist in academic affairs, she also chairs a committee that monitors the law on university autonomy passed in 2007, of which the proposed reform is a direct result.

Meanwhile, it's becoming clearer that President Nicolas Sarkozy didn’t help himself with his 22 January speech on science policy reform, in which he launched a scathing attack on the state of French science. The remarks have served to strengthen the strike, now in its 2nd week, and led to an online petition asking Sarkozy to apologize for his "contemptuous and defamatory" remarks.

The government's case has also been undermined by the public defection of medical geneticist Axel Kahn, president of the Université Paris Descartes, whose countless TV appearances have made him one of the best-known researchers in France. Kahn had so far been sympathetic to Sarkozy's reformist zeal, a fact the president noted in a televised speech on 5 February. But in a statement issued on 7 February and in interviews, Kahn has called on Sarkozy to withdraw the decree, which he said had no chance of passing, and he called on the government to renew its dialogue with the academic world. Kahn also criticized Sarkozy's "hurtful" remarks.