And What About France? Students Block Traffic, Hold Administrators Hostage, Barricade City
April 15, 2009
Being president of a French university is a tough job these days. After the violent assault on Rennes 2 University on April 6, universities in Strasbourg and Orleans were also besieged by angry students on April 7.
In Rennes, west of France, the president of the university, Marc Gontard, had to flee from his office when more than 100 students broke the windows and entered the building. “The president’s office has been attacked. We are up in the stairs waiting for external help,” said Gontard in a phone call to French press agency AFP. Following this, close to 150 students in the eastern city of Strasbourg forced their way into the general council room, preventing 30 directors of research and study courses from leaving, according to media reports. At the same time, in the central city of Orleans 60 students entered the office of University President Gérald Guillaumet, keeping him prisoner for the afternoon. Finally, in Paris a student mob sequestrated the head of the organization in charge of granting scholarships and university rooms. Police had to use force to free the manager.
French university students have been striking for months over the government’s new plan to reform the education system. They claim it will make university teaching purely utilitarian. Students also fear that curriculum will be influenced by private companies if the latter were to fund universities. “Education is not merchandise” has become a motto for the strikers.
The government has accepted some changes, such as delaying the reform of teacher training, and maintaining the status of university teachers. The head of the Conference of University Presidents, Lionel Collet, thought this would be enough to resume classes, which turned out to be too optimistic.
In some places, radical leftist students are still stopping people from going to class. With the exam season approaching, radical strikers have also claimed that all students should automatically get their diplomas, so as not to suffer for having given so-call protection to the French educational system.
Coincidentally, in the context of this violence, a survey published by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) shows that 30 percent of French respondents understand and approve of such radical actions. This includes the phenomenon of so-called “boss-napping,” a neologism referring to the growing tendency of employees in difficult situations to make their case heard by sequestrating their manager.
The past few weeks have seen half a dozen such cases in France, including one in which François-Henri Pinault, CEO of luxury group PPR, was blockaded for hours by angry employees.
French students escalated ongoing protests in advance of the Easter holiday this week, occupying offices on two campuses and barricading a Paris street.
Early in the week student protesters held university administrators in Orleans, Rennes, and Strasbourg hostage for a brief time. In Rennes, the president was forced to flee his office and call for help from a stairway, and in Strasbourg more than a hundred students forced their way into a room where thirty administrators were meeting, blocking their way out for a time.
On Wednesday protesters in Paris turned the Boulevard Saint-Michel into an impromptu beach, dumping sand into the road and blocking traffic. The beach was a nod to a slogan from the May 1968 protests that shook French society: “sous les pavés, la plage” — under the cobblestones, the beach. (For a discussion of the various shades of meaning behind this slogan, click here.)
Protests against changes to French higher education policy have been going on for two months, and administrators now say that if the disruption does not end after Easter, the spring semester may be lost entirely. Click here for a Reuters article from the newspaper Le Monde on the recent demonstrations, or here for Google’s English translation.
Lecturers and students accuse French President of ‘ultra-capitalist’ attempt to privatise education system
Monday, 16 March 2009
Strikes and protests by lecturers and students which have disrupted French universities for six weeks are threatening to turn violent and merge with broader anger against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms and the economic crisis.
Student barricades closed two universities in Montpellier in the south of France today and sit-ins last week exploded into scuffles, vandalism and even death threats.
Despite concessions by the Education Ministry, an arcane dispute over the status of lecturers and other university reforms shows no sign of easing. The government also faces a one-day general strike and street marches against the recession on Thursday and there are fears the education dispute could become the focal point for prolonged and wider social unrest.
In the past, university battles have lit the touchpaper for broader grievances in France. Because of this, M. Sarkozy – who had pledged not to flinch from his programme of economic and social reform – has ordered his higher education minister, Valérie Pécresse, to make a series of strategic retreats over the past three weeks.
But they have been to no avail. The row over changes in lecturers’ contracts and plans to give more autonomy to university administrators has taken on a life of its own. To left-wing teachers and students, the protests have become a crusade against M. Sarkozy’s “ultra-capitalist” plans to “privatise education” and subject universities to the “laws of the market”.
Supporters of the reforms say they are a modest and overdue attempt to rescue the university system from mediocrity and neglect. Rather than defend lecturer privileges, they say, teaching unions and students should be protesting against the chronic underfunding and overcrowding of universities, which remain overshadowed by the elite “Grandes Ecoles”.
In many French universities, there have been scarcely any lectures or classes since strikes and blockades began on 2 February. The dispute has frustrated the 18,000 students from other European countries – including 2,000 from Britain – who are attached to French universities as part of the EU Erasmus exchange programme.
The Erasmus co-ordinator at the Sorbonne university in Paris last week warned his students that they might have to cut their losses and go home to secure the course credits they need.
In an email to students, Alfonso Mostacero said: “Some of you will have to consider going home if there is a possibility that you can complete the second semester in your home university. I am not telling anyone to return, but I think that I should give you all the available information so that you can decide what to do for yourselves.”
Hannah Burrows, 20, from Edinburgh, is studying at the Sorbonne on a year out from St Andrews University. She said British students were looking for jobs to fill their time. |”I guess I have sort of given up on the Sorbonne,” she said. “The thing that exasperates me most about this dispute is how much students’ time it wastes. Sometimes I will turn up to a class hoping to be taught, and the teacher doesn’t bother to show up.”
“I find myself feeling very disillusioned and exasperated by the whole situation, financially and otherwise.”
At the heart of the standoff is the government’s attempt to shake up the terms of employment for university teachers. Under their existing contracts, French academics, like academics elsewhere, are meant to divide their time between teaching and undertaking original research. In practice, the government says, some researchers rarely teach and some teachers rarely do any research.
Under the proposed reform, academics who failed to complete their research hours would be obliged to teach for longer.
Some teaching unions have portrayed the reform as a right-wing plot against academic freedom and independence, a view which left-wing students have accepted.
Ten days ago, Mme Pécresse agreed to a revised version of her plan which would allow individual university teachers to refuse any enforced change in their timetables.
The talks failed, however, to solve another grievance over proposed changes in the training of primary and secondary school teachers.
The strikes and blockages have continued and now threaten – as in Montpellier yesterday – to be hijacked by student groups protesting against all attempts by M. Sarkozy to reform the education system.
Gendarmes were called in on Friday to expel students and alleged outsiders who had occupied an amphitheatre at a Montpellier university.
After scuffling and severe damage to university buildings, administrators insisted that people without student cards would be banned from the campus in future.
Students barricaded themselves into two Montpellier universities today in protest.
8 April, 19:19 | Reuters
PARIS (Reuters) – Hundreds of French students built a barricade in central Paris on Wednesday, seeking to raise pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 10th week of nationwide protests against his university reform plans.
Lecturers and students have been on strike across France to demand the withdrawal of three government reforms they say will hike the cost of studying and lower the quality of teaching.
Sarkozy says the reforms will energise universities and improve graduates’ chances on the job market. After watering down one of the reforms to address strikers’ concerns, the government says it will budge no further.
The deadlock has left universities in chaos, with no lectures taking place, buildings blocked by piles of desks and chairs and uncertainty over whether June exams will go ahead.
Two rectors at universities in Orleans and Rennes were held hostage briefly by students in separate incidents this week.
“I’m worried about not having lectures or exams but we have to fight for a just cause,” said literature student Selin Cay.
At the Sorbonne, birthplace of the May 1968 student uprising that escalated into a general strike, students have staged a series of colourful street events including a mock Inquisition “trial of Nicolas Sarkozy” in full medieval fancy dress.
On Wednesday, they used shopping trolleys and rubbish bins covered in sand to build a “beach barricade”, stopping traffic on two major roads in the heart of the Latin Quarter — much to the delight of passing tourists who whipped their cameras out.
“We had heard the French were always protesting so they’re confirming it for us,” said Venezuelan visitor Martin Fernandes.
The impromptu barricade caught police by surprise and they made no immediate attempt to clear the road. Students then drifted away to a larger demonstration elsewhere in Paris.
French state universities are almost free and are accessible to most school-leavers. But the system has become creaky over the decades, with overcrowded lectures and degrees so common they mean little to employers.
Sarkozy has complained in the past about what he sees as resistance to change in the education system — a charge that infuriates lecturers and students.
“Everyone in the university community agrees that reforms are necessary, but they should not be imposed on us without consultation as this government has done,” said Marie Salgues, a lecturer in Spanish at Paris 8 university.
She was taking part in the “Infinite Circle of the Obstinate”, a round-the-clock circular protest march that has been taking place without interruption since March 23 in front of Paris City Hall thanks to a constant relay of participants.
The difficulty now is to find a way out of the crisis.
“There is still time to catch up on lectures and hold exams,” Valerie Pecresse, the minister in charge of higher education, said on Wednesday, pleading for a return to normal.
April 8, 2009
On the eve of the two-week Easter holiday, French university students and academic staff members staged another mass demonstration in Paris today, blocking a major boulevard in the Latin Quarter, the historic core of academic life in the city, and shouting slogans evoking the mass protests that convulsed the country in May 1968, the news agency Reuters reported. Elsewhere in France, protesters this week appeared to step up their tactics, occupying administrative offices at two universities and “sequestering” their presidents.
Operations at universities across France have been disrupted for the past 10 weeks by protests and demonstrations sparked by government moves to reform the higher-education system. France’s education minister, Valérie Pécresse, said today that it was still possible to salvage the semester if there are no further disruptions when classes resume after the holiday. “There is still time to catch up on lectures and hold exams,” Ms. Pécresse told the Parisien newspaper, according to Reuters.
In targeting the heads of universities, protesters appeared to be borrowing a page from the manual of disgruntled French workers who have recently taken their bosses hostage at a handful of factories. On Monday the president of the University of Rennes 2 was reportedlyheld by student and faculty protesters. On Tuesday the president of the University of Orléans was held by demonstrators who occupied the university’s main administration building. Gwendal Ropars, a second-year student who participated in the action, insisted today that the rector was free to depart at any time and that, although he remained in the building until 9 p.m., he did so of his own volition.
Annliese Nef, a lecturer in medieval Islamic history at the Sorbonne who participated in the demonstration in Paris today, said that action would be the last major event on the protest calendar before the Easter holiday, but that mass demonstrations would resume after the break. Meanwhile, actions such as the ronde des obstinés — a uniquely Gallic protest in which, according to The Guardian, protesters have walked in circles for two weeks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week — are set to continue over the holiday. —Aisha Labi