Published online 13 February 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.101

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Strike stalls reform of French universities

Sarkozy on the ropes as scientists take to the streets.

PécresseValérie Pécresse: under fire from French scientists.Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons

A wave of resistance to government reforms of the French university system this week swelled into a tsunami. President Nicolas Sarkozy and his science and education minister Valérie Pécresse now face a united wall of opposition from scientists and students. Striking researchers are demanding that the government consults with the scientific community and rethinks the reforms.

University lecturers and researchers first went on strike on 2 February in protest over a draft decree that would change their job descriptions and procedures for promotion (see French scientists revolt against government reforms). The academics' opposition has since grown to a level that has not been seen for more than a decade.

As many as 40,000 placard-waving researchers and students braved bad weather to take to the streets of Paris on 10 February, as part of nationwide demonstrations that saw huge turnouts in university cities across the country. The grassroots research organization Save Research called the turnout "historic". The crisis has made headlines on prime-time TV news.

On 9 February, Pécresse conceded some ground, announcing that she would "rework" the decree, but she refused to withdraw it. Two days later, she appointed Claire Bazy-Malaurie, a senior official at France's national audit commission, as a mediator to negotiate with researchers over the next two months on a revised text.

But on 12 February, university representatives voted to prolong the strike indefinitely unless the decree is renegotiated, and announced a further national day of street protests on 19 February.

Time for a rethink

The spat over the decree has become a lightning rod for opposition to the government's broader reforms of the research and university systems, which many see as hastily imposed. As the protests gain momentum, researchers seem to be in no mood to compromise and are expanding their list of demands.

Save Research, trade unions and other scientific bodies are now demanding broad-ranging negotiations on issues such as recruitment, and calling for a reversal of the government's proposed restructuring of national research agencies including the National Centre of Scientific Research (CNRS).

That restructuring would transform CNRS into a research council; transfer the major responsibility for research away from the national research agencies to the universities; and give universities greater autonomy from government. Leading figures in French research have this week distanced themselves from plans to break up the CNRS, calling for a rethink in consultation with the research community.

Spectacular blow

Sarkozy had exacerbated the situation with a now-infamous speech on 22 January when he repeatedly pascordiale.html">attacked French scientists. The speech has been unanimously condemned by researchers of every stripe — including the staid French Academy of Sciences — and has since come to symbolize the gulf between the government and the scientific community.

In a televised address to the nation on 5 February, an unrepentant Sarkozy claimed that the support shown for his reforms by Axel Kahn, one of France's most prominent scientists, was evidence for broader acceptance from the academic community. But in a spectacular blow to Sarkozy, Kahn issued a statement the following day saying that the government should withdraw the decree.

Kahn argued that reforms were impossible without having researchers on board, adding that the government needed to restart "negotiations from zero" with the research community.

Other university presidents have since followed suit. Their official representative body, the Conference of University Presidents, which is a major force behind the drive for university autonomy, issued a statement on 11 February saying that negotiation was only possible "if a climate of trust was restored in the university community".

And in a letter sent to Pécresse this week, Catherine Bréchignac, president of the CNRS, argued that although she supports moves to give universities greater autonomy, reforms should focus on improving the existing system - where most universities share responsibility for their labs with one of the national research agencies. 

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