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FRANCE: Spies and the Jardin des Plantes

Claude-Marie Vadrot, a part-time lecturer at a Paris university, planned to take his students to the Jardin des Plantes for an outdoor lecture on biodiversity and plant protection. As part of the capital's Natural History Museum not only was the public garden relevant to his subject, his choice of location was also a gesture of solidarity with striking colleagues.

But when he arrived at the gates he was refused entry by security guards - the beginning of an incident that he says has made him "very anxious at the revelation of an alarming shift in our society".

Vadrot, a journalist and ecologist who has lectured at the University of Paris-8 Vincennes-Saint Denis for 20 years, describes on his blog how he was informed by the head of security, who addressed him by name, that he was barred from the garden. He was given no explanation except that "demonstrations are banned in the museum", though he insisted he was there to give a lecture.

Among different kinds of protest actions, many lecturers who have been on strike for more than two months against proposed government reforms are highlighting their grievances by organising their classes in public places.

Vadrot, who is not a member of a teaching union, told University World News: "I wanted to show solidarity with my colleagues, without penalising my students." The Jardin des Plantes, a place of scientific research for centuries, was an obvious place to talk about biodiversity and protection of plants, he said.

The students were already assembled in the garden but they joined Vadrot in the street where he gave his lecture outside the entrance to the garden - "a lecture that was about the museum's history, protection of nature, about Buffon" [Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon, the 18th century biologist and naturalist who transformed the garden into a research centre and museum].

Afterwards he tried again to enter at a different gate to give a guided tour of the garden, but though his students were admitted, he was again refused - at first.

"The director of security who said he was acting in the name of the museum's director... clearly began to see the absurdity of the situation and ended by making an incredible proposal of the kind that I could have heard before, as a journalist, in the Soviet Union," wrote Vadrot on his blog. He could go in if he promised not to talk about politics to his students and other teachers.

Vadrot told University World News the guards were waiting for him when he arrived and the assistant director of security had approached him "without hesitation".

"They were waiting for me on the orders of their head, who was following an order from the director," he said.

Museum staff had been told beforehand of his plan "through the interception - I don't know by whom or how - of an email exchange with the students about where the lecture would take place and what it would be about. I added that it would be followed by a walk in this garden. In any case, there wasn't any 'demonstration' in my mind and the word was not used in the preparatory messages".

Vadrot was the only one of the university party who was identified, as the students were already in the garden and they had not been noticed among other members of the public.
Marc Champesme, National secretary of Snesup, the biggest lecturers' union, told University World News the Vadrot incident was "completely unacceptable, truly disturbing. It is unacceptable that people can be prevented going about their lawful activities".

Champesme said he recognised an increasing trend towards surveillance by the authorities, and a greater police presence regarding lecturers' activities.

"We are living increasingly within a legal framework which allows the government to put personnel on file," he said. "Last year, the Ministries of Education and of Higher Education and Research issued a call for bids from private companies to monitor the university community, to report on any tendency to mobilise, and the people involved."

Switching such control from public officials to private agencies meant the operators were less accountable, Champesme said. Snesup last week made a "strong protest at increasingly repressive" measures used against demonstrators, especially the young.

"In many university towns during peaceful demonstrations, demonstrators are confronted by disproportionate numbers of police and brutal, repressive operations - insults, attacks on banners carrying slogans, truncheon charges and firing of stun grenades without warning, teargas, arrests by the anti-crime squad and the CRS [riot police], summonses on charges of 'rebellion against the forces of law' or 'armed violence against the CRS'", the union claimed.

Vadrot thought his "adventure" might be connected to the fact the museum's director was not a scientist, as had previously been the case since 1793, but a government-appointed administrator. Until 1999, the director was chosen by an assembly of the institution's professors from among their number.

A spokeswoman at the Museum of Natural History told University World News the security service had been alerted because Vadrot "wanted to organise a demonstration, which is forbidden, and not a lecture. It is not the same thing".

Vadrot said it was only afterwards he thought about how "extraordinary the incident was, and a revelation of an alarming slide in our society. Looking back on it, I am very worried."

Last week, the conflict between the government and the lecturers continued through its 10th week with no signs of an end to the strike.

Among incidents on university campuses the president of Orléans University was trapped in his office by about 100 students; students disrupted a meeting of university managers at Strasbourg; and students invaded the Paris headquarters of the Crous, regional centre of the national network of student support agencies, in a 'free meals' operation.

Several hundred lecturers at Rouen University voted to refuse to preside on baccalauréat examining boards, a statutory requirement. With the approach of students' examinations, the national strike committee called on striking universities to validate the year's second semester automatically.

But Higher Education and Research Minister Valérie Pécresse rejected this and said it was "essential that all courses which have not been given in the past few weeks must take place before the examinations".

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