France: Students march against Macron

Student organisations and blockades are multiplying at French universities. Students are opposing measures that would make admission to universities more restrictive. It is a fight that could spread even wider considering the growing movement of railworkers fighting to safekeep public services.

We are putting these matters into place in order that people stop believing that universities are the solution for everyone” the newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron said last August 31 in the weekly ‘Le Point’. In light of students’ significant failure rates, the ex-Rothschild banker supported the idea that students who failed classes simply do not have a place at university. A notion that caused students and teachers to jump up. “It would not be helpful, we are being told, to accept more students who do not possess the necessary skills. It is a waste of public money! However, is it not the purpose of our national education system to teach and educate? Is that not the beauty of our profession; to help lift up those who are not yet accomplished? What would our role be if we were to provide lectures only to those who do not experience any problems and who had the good fortune of being fully prepared for a higher education?” said 425 teachers and researchers in a public statement, supporting the ongoing student movement.1

Universities: open to everyone or only the elite?

Teachers are outraged at the lack of resources received to provide proper guidance to students. The last ten years have seen a drastic reduction of budgets and the halting of new appointments at the university, in spite of a predicted rise in students the following years because of the baby-boom of the early 2000s. Result: overcrowded lecture halls, increasingly diminished educational support for students and an ever increasing rate of failure.

A state-organised policy of decay that paved the way for the reforms of Higher-Education Minister Frédérique Vidal, ‘l’Orientation et la réussite des étudiants’ (‘Academic Orientation and the Succes Rate of Students’, also called the ‘ORE reforms’, the ‘Students reforms’ or the ‘Vidal reforms’). These are not aimed at supporting the students’s succes, but limiting young people’s chance at a higher education. The ORE reforms allow universities to select students on the basis of their application, which will create universities operating at two different speeds. Some universities will now have a choice to accept only the most gifted students from the best schools, whereas other students will have no choice but to opt for second-tier universities.

Young people will be sacrified due to the state’s budgetary concerns, or rather on behalf of the millionaires’ profit margins. An estimated 1 bilion euros per year are needed for higher education to catch-up on years of neglect of new investment. The abolishment of the solidarity tax on wealth and the new tax on capital will cost 4.5 bilion euros for 2018 alone. These will largely be found by reforming the higher-education system.

Beatings with batons make the movement grow

“You commemorate May ‘68 on the one hand, but break out batons with the other. What kind of society is being presented to our youth? Police officers in schools, crowd control by the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité (CRS; riot police) at the mid-terms and students in police custody? A society is measured by the spirit of its youth. And this student movement aligns perfectly with the struggles of the railworkers, health workers, civil servants and retirees who question this model of society!” declared Communist Party representative Elsa Faucillon April 10 in the French National Assembly to prime minister Edouard Phillipe, after a particularly firm intervention of the CRS the previous day at the University of Nanterre.

These last few weeks police interventions on campuses, aimed at suppressing student movements, have multiplied: Nantes, Bordeaux, Montpellier, Lyon, Paris, Lille, Caen, Dijon, Grenoble, Strasbourg… and Nanterre, where the disproportionate measures used against 150 students who occupied peacefully a university lecture hall went viral and shocked social media. Students were shaken up and teargassed and those identified as leaders were all simply arrested. The following day, more than 600 students and staff met in assembly and voted to blockade the university.

The attempts at repression against the student movement have up to now only had the opposite effect and convinced many students to join the movement against the ORE reforms. The struggle of the railworkers has also played a role the last couple of weeks in developing the student movement. Students showed up in the thousands at the march for public services on March 22, led by railworkers. Undoubtedly many more will join up with the public service workers demonstration on April 19.

Views on the success of the movements

Several elements contribute to the strength of the current student movement. They are centered on clear demands: the repeal of the ORE reforms, the refinancing with public money of higher education and respect for democratic liberties at the heart of universities. Furthermore the student movement can count on strong support from teachers, and its coincidence with the struggles of railworkers, and workers in general, has the potential to develop a favorable balance of power.

Though the blockades and student assemblies – numbering upwards to 3000 students! - continue to grow, they have not yet translated into large-scale student demonstrations. The movement lacks coordination between the different universities and no student union organization can claim to lead the movement. The UNEF (‘Union nationale des étudiants de France’, the National Students’ Union) who led the 2006 student movement to a victory with regards to repealing the ‘First Employment c-Contract’ (‘Contrat Première Embauche’, CPE), has considerably weakened in favor of the FAGE (Féderation des Associations Générales Etudiantes), who support the goverment’s reforms and have gained considerable terrain in representative organs.2

Antoine Guerreiro, national secretary of the Communist Students, points out three elements that could help the current movement attain victory. Firstly, translate the student assemblies into large scale manifestations around clear demands. Secondly, declare full support for the railworkers, and the wider worker protests, and combine their struggle against Macron’s policies. Lastly, a determination to take these struggles to the hilt in order to attain succes.

A struggle with European stakes

The tendency for limiting acces to higher education appears in several European countries, and is centered on the EU’s policy to develop more elite universities.

Both Francophone and Dutch-speaking Belgium are considering similar restrictive measures, even though current ruling parties are postponing changes in wait of the results of the upcoming elections. On the Francophone side an expert report of the ‘Académie de Recherche et d’Enseignement Supérieur’ (Academy of Research and Higher-Education, ARES), made up of the executives of higher-education establishments, has confirmed that restrictive measures are being considered to reduce the number of students. On the Dutch-speaking side, rector Luc Sels of the KU Leuven, the biggest university in the country, has favored restrictive measures, with a test for academic orientation as an intermediary step. “The University should not be open to everyone”, they all repeat in chorus.

The French students’ struggle therefor shines a light, not only on the coming reforms in Belgium, but equally on the opportunity for resistance and to fight for a refinancing of the education system so that all those who would like to can attend higher education. A victory for the students of France will help open up the debate on the direction of higher education in Europe and encourage students from other countries to equally provide opposition. This is why Comac, the student movement of the Worker’s Party of Belgium joined the demonstration last March 22 and why attendance will also be given in France on April 19 to support the French student and worker’s struggles.

1 See: https://www.francetvinfo.fr/choix/tribune-une-selection-absurde-plus-de-400-enseignants-chercheurs-denoncent-la-reforme-de-l-acces-a-l-universite_2693044.html (last check april 2018) •

2 Annabelle Allouch, Les étudiants livrés au marché de l’anxiété, Monde diplomatique, april 2018

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