FRANCE: Students protest against new law

Student protests against the French government’s university reforms and lack of funding are spreading throughout France. Several thousand protesters demonstrated in towns around the country and closed 20 universities.

Among them were three in Paris while those in Lyon, Toulouse, Aix-Marseille, Grenoble, Rennes, Lille, Tours, Rouen, Pau, Montpellier, Caen and Nantes were also affected.

Students stopped short of erecting the barricades but voted to join a general strike of teachers and other public sector workers on 20 November.

Their main grievance is the government’s University Freedom and Responsibilities (LRU) reform giving universities more autonomy, passed in the summer (Government fast-tracks autonomy law, 14 October).

Opponents fear the new legislation will lead to ‘privatisation’ of universities, higher fees, selection, domination by business and competition between establishments leading to increased inequalities. They are also demanding greater resources to improve student living conditions.

Higher education and research minister Valérie Pécresse met student representatives and promised an extra €11 million ($15.95 million) for student housing. But her gesture did not stop up to 1,000 demonstrators marching in Paris, some with banners proclaiming: “Together everything is possible – in the street!”

The last three words were tacked onto a slogan used by Nicolas Sarkozy during his successful presidential campaign.

The students’ action recalls protests in spring 2006 against a planned youth employment law which the previous government was humiliatingly forced to withdraw after weeks of demonstrations and university closures throughout France.

Pécresse urged all students to attend meetings en masse to prevent a minority of left-wingers taking control of events. Like some university presidents, especially those whose establishments were among the first to be blocked, she accused political infiltrators of causing the unrest. But the point lost some force when the biggest student union, Unef, which is close to the Socialist party, finally decided to back the action.

Unef had been in a difficult position, having accepted the LRU in negotiations with Pécresse during preparation of the legislation. Announcing its policy switch, leader Bruno Juillard (pictured) said that although he accepted the law was not perfect and he did not believe its repeal was attainable, Unef would not make this a reason for splitting the movement.

Lecturers’ unions have voiced support for the protesters.

The principal union, Snesup, called for increased action to bring about repeal of the legislation. Another union, Unsa Education, called on university staff “to demonstrate their determination on 20 November in defence of the missions of public service and statutory employment, and for the necessity of democratic and transparent management of the universities”.

But the Conference of University Presidents, whose members will gain more powers from the changes, said the law was necessary for the development of universities.

“Contrary to certain allegations, the [reforms] will not lead to the dismemberment of public service, will not threaten university democracy and will not submit establishments to the yoke of business,” a conference spokesman said.