Annie Thébaud-Mony

The knight who said no. Annie Thébaud-Mony refused France's top honor.

French Researcher Snubs High State Honor to Protest 'Industrial Crimes'

A French public health researcher and advocate has refused to accept one of the highest honors bestowed by the French government to protest what she says is a lax attitude toward health hazards in the workplace. Annie Thébaud-Mony, a semiretired researcher at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM), says it would be "almost indecent" to accept the honor while there is "a very big indifference … to the death of workers and to environmental damage."

On 13 July, a day before France's national holiday, the French government announced that Thébaud-Mony was to become a knight in the Légion d'Honneur. She had been nominated, along with 29 other French citizens, by housing minister Cécile Duflot. In a letter dated 31 July that she made public on Saturday, Thébaud-Mony thanked the minister but wrote that she would prefer to see Duflot "challenge the impunity that until now has protected those who carry out industrial crimes."

Thébaud-Mony has spent 3 decades investigating health hazards in the workplace—with a focus on cancers—and has studied related regulation, social inequalities, and patient support. She has also become a strong advocate; she co-founded Ban Asbestos France, for instance, and currently presides over the Henri Pézerat Association, which supports initiatives to reduce professional and environmental health risks.

By refusing the award, Thébaud-Mony says she wants to alert the government to the fact that many French workers are still exposed to cancer-causing compounds. A 10-year survey she conducted among oncology and pulmonology patients in the region of Seine-Saint-Denis showed that "85% are heavily exposed to a cocktail of carcinogens without any protection," she says. Among the most risky sectors are construction, car repair, metal, waste, maintenance, cleaning, and the nuclear industry. While regulations have been put in place, many of them in the 1990s, employers often don't comply, she says.

Thébaud-Mony says that researchers in her field have been lacking institutional support. She says she didn’t receive the personal recognition she was expecting from INSERM, which she believes passed her over for promotions in part because her work runs counter to industrial interests. "Even worse," she wrote in her letter to Duflot, "several young and brilliant researchers who worked with me have seen the doors of the institutions close in front of them." An INSERM spokesperson said no one at the institute was available to respond the past 2 days.

In a statement issued on Monday, Duflot said that she had "profound respect for Thébaud-Mony's determined and disinterested engagement," and said that her reasons to refuse the medal were exactly the ones for which she deserved it. Duflot also said she would extend an invitation to talk in September. "My only wish is that our combined actions, and the publicity they are receiving, contribute to making your fight more than a summer topic," the minister added.