Student’s self-immolation triggers insecurity protests

Students demonstrated on campuses throughout France last week, with their protests – some of which turned violent – prompted by a student who had set himself on fire. He left a message condemning increasing financial insecurity, of which he was a victim.

The student at Lyon 2 University, identified as Anas K, aged 22, had lost his right to a grant and student accommodation after twice failing the second year of his licence (bachelor degree equivalent).

On Friday 8 November he posted a message on Facebook stating: “Today I am going to commit the irrevocable”, and drawing attention to the precariousness of students, including himself; then in front of the regional student welfare centre in Lyon he sprayed himself with petrol and set himself on fire. He was rushed to hospital where last week he was still seriously ill.

His action led to demonstrations by shocked and angry students last week on campuses throughout France, encouraged by the union Solidaires of which Anas K is an active member.

France’s Minister for Higher Education, Research and Innovation, Frédérique Vidal, condemned the violence and damage on the fringes of some of the protests, including forced entry to her ministry in Paris, where the entrance gate was torn down.

“The tragic gesture carried out by a young man last Friday aroused justifiable emotion, but violence cannot have a place at university,” she said.

She also condemned the cancellation of a conference that was to be addressed by the former president of France, François Hollande, at Lille 2 University, after between 300 and 400 demonstrators invaded the law faculty.

Vidal, who was abroad when Anas K attempted suicide, returned the following day to visit Lyon, where she ordered an inquiry in addition to one being carried out by the public prosecutor.

Students’ associations have taken up Anas K’s cause against students’ financial insecurity.

The Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF) said by his action he was denouncing the social policies of France; which had made students increasingly desperate: 8% of students had tried to kill themselves during 2018.

Student precariousness had risen by 2.83% this year, according to a UNEF inquiry; and the situation was deteriorating under the present government with a freeze on grants and restructuring of housing allowances, which had led to many students losing money.

The Fédération des Associations Générales Étudiantes (FAGE) claimed that 20% of 18- to 24-year-olds were living below the poverty line and more than a third of students took paid work to meet their needs. Many could not afford healthcare, and “doing without meals during difficult times becomes a habit”, along with the problems of finding somewhere to live as rentals continued to increase.

The situation was continuing to get worse, said FAGE, and anger and distress were increasing on campuses. It demanded urgent measures, reform and massive investment.

The government met to discuss what action to take, at a tense time when workers are planning strikes in many sectors, including transport, hospitals and social care, as well as the widespread gilets jaunes protest movement.

Junior Education Minister Gabriel Attal told the Senate that student insecurity was a “hard reality” and students must be better informed about the aid and benefits available. He said ministers would work towards introducing a universal income as demanded by students’ associations.

Le Monde reported Government Spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye as itemising measures introduced this academic year – including the cancellation of students’ social security charges, no increase in university fees, a rise of 1.1% for grants awarded on social criteria – costing an extra €46 million (US$51 million) in 2019-20.