French doctoral students are on the warpath over low government research grants and poor working conditions. Last week, the Confédération des Etudiants-Chercheurs (CEC), which represents about 3000 research students, chose the Finance Ministry for its first ever demonstration. Protestors from Paris, Strasbourg, Lyon, and Rennes demanded a 20% increase in grants, which have not risen since they were introduced in 1991, and access to resources such as offices and computers. According to CEC president Claire Poinsot, 700 students showed up, though the police put the total at no more than 500. A simultaneous demonstration of about 200 doctoral students was held in Toulouse.

The CEC's demands are backed by a petition of 13,000 signatures, it says, including those of 50 parliamentarians from the National Assembly and the Senate. The Research Ministry is asking for a 5% increase in the 3-year grants in next year's government budget, but Poinsot says the Finance Ministry does not understand the work of doctoral students and fears it might well turn a deaf ear to the idea of any increase at all. If that is the case, more postgraduates will turn to the private sector, she warns, and the quality of researchers in the public sector will decline.

The Socialist-dominated government's priority, when it took office in 1997, was to increase the number of grants available, rather than boost pay. Grantholders will have risen from 3700 to 4000 in October. However, with 12,000-odd students preparing a thesis, a lot of students are still dependent on a variety of alternative sources of funding. These often last for only 6 months or a year and are not always renewable. "It is not easy to live with a horizon of 6 months," Poinsot said.

To help ease the problem, the Education Ministry has promised to increase the number of university teaching assistant posts for doctoral students from 2000 to 2700 in the next academic year. Although the FF2200 monthly salary for 64 hours a year of teaching may augment income, it is not necessarily time well spent if a teaching career is not the ultimate goal, the CEC says. To answer this criticism, a pilot scheme scheduled to begin in 2002 will give doctoral students the opportunity to undertake paid work in industry and the civil service, explained a Research Ministry official.

The CEC intends to maintain the pressure on the government, which should finalise its 2002 draft budget in mid-July, and is planning a second demonstration for the end of June if no solution is found in the meantime. The protestors propose to march from the Research Ministry to the office of Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, because "he will be the only one who can break the deadlock," Poinsot said.