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Barricading the University

French students face a critical juncture in their fight against Emmanuel Macron. But the movement’s real strength may lie outside the campus.

Thousands of people take to the streets during the May Day demonstrations on May 1, 2018 in Paris, France. Jeff J Mitchell / Getty

France is today seeing one of its largest student movements in years. Protests have erupted in opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s measures to introduce academic selection for university places. Twenty-five campuses have been occupied or blockaded across the country, and students have also joined with striking rail, post, and health workers in dispute with the government. Yet while Macron is mounting one of the most radical changes to French higher education in decades, the movement faces real difficulties in blocking his reforms.

The French establishment has learned the lesson of its British and American counterparts: turning education into a marketplace takes a long march, not a sprint. The government is following the British authorities’ strategy of passing piecemeal reforms which are then difficult to reverse. If French students don’t stop this process soon, the ultimate direction of travel is a British or American-style system based on extortionate fees and long-term debt.

Yet if Macron’s method is to introduce competition, the aim is to change the student’s soul. Injecting market logic into education is meant to neutralize a key opponent: a student body conscious of its rights. More than in most countries, the French establishment fears that student movements can crystallize a wider social discontent.

Not just 1968 but also memories of the successful 1986 student movement against university selection loom large for French policymakers. That year, hundreds of thousands of students stopped Jacques Chirac’s proposed law introducing selection, contributing to his defeat against François Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential contest. More than their counterparts abroad, French students consider themselves a powerful force.

Yet Macron has done much to split the student opposition and isolate the more militant campuses. He has achieved this by leaving aside, for now, the question of fees and playing on popular grievances with the poor state of public higher education — largely due to historic under-investment and oversubscription.

At the same time, he has sought to blame the movement on a minority of “professional agitators.” And he has warned students that if they are skipping their studies to protest, there will be no easy, “chocolate-coated” exam at the end of the year. The French president’s daring reflects not mere overconfidence, but a calculated strategy.

The Reforms

The new legislation — named “loi ORE” (Student Orientation and Achievement Law) or “Student Plan” — rewrites a crucial part of France’s Education Code. Introduced in the 1960s as a tool for democratizing access to education, the Code specifies that any person holding a baccalaureate (the high-school exit qualification) is “free to register in the university establishment of their choice.”

During last year’s presidential election, Emmanuel Macron called this principle into question. He explained that any new government would need to fix a broken system of oversubscribed and overcrowded universities, an unfair lottery for places, and rising numbers of dropouts. The main instrument of this change will be to grant universities the autonomous power to choose their students. “We will stop having everyone believe that the university is the right solution for everyone,” Macron promised.

One of the lone critical voices in the French parliament, France Insoumise leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, strongly criticized the new upper limit on student places. The capping of numbers would, he argued, hit those from the poorest backgrounds hardest. The reforms aim to create competitive “channels of excellence”: external bodies (including private companies) will be to create their own tailored masters and doctoral programs reflecting the needs of the “market.” The new law, Mélenchon writes, will allow private interests to “barricade the university.” even if students don’t do it themselves.

The reforms would generalize a selection system that has long existed already in France’s elite educational institutions. Of France’s twenty-five education and higher education ministers between 1958 and 2016, only ten went to a university rather than a grande École — France’s elite and highly selective higher-education institutions. The academic backgrounds of French presidents offer a similar picture. What’s new about Macron’s reforms is that the individualized competition by which the French establishment ranks, selects, and reproduces itself would now be extended to all students.

Yet over the past weeks, even the prestigious Rue d’Ulm campus of the École Normale Supérieur — one of the most prestigious grandes écoles — has been occupied in protest against the government’s reform plans, to the horror of Prime Minister Édouard Philippe. This is, indeed, a campus with a record of radicalism, having once been home to Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault, and Jean-Paul Sartre.

While closely bound to Macron’s overall market-led vision of France, the reforms are also linked to immigration policies. The tightening of conditions of access to French universities and the monitoring of grades and attendance will make it easier for international students to be expelled from the country if the authorities sees fit. To renew their residence permits each academic year, international students will have to provide their academic results, offer an explanatory letter, and show proof of resources (a bank account with more than 1,845 euros).

If the authorities deem the student lacking in motivation, their work “inconsistent,” or their grades failing, they could lose their right to remain in France. Encouraging universities to become private interests with powers to select and reject international students makes the university a new front line in the crackdown on immigrants. From a place of learning, the university becomes a machine to define, police, and then expel those without the right papers.

A Movement Stalled

When the education bill passed the French parliament in winter, the movement in opposition was slow to mobilize. Since January, student general assemblies — the movement’s main organizing hubs — have generally been characterized by weak participation. Demonstrations called by the National Education Coordination (CNE), on February 1, 6, and 15 mobilized no more than 20,000 students across France. By the time of the March 13 deadline for students to submit their choices on the government’s new online admissions platform (“Parcoursup”), the movement had not yet gained traction.

Following the mass trade union and student demonstration of March 22, general assemblies across France saw their numbers rise. Where there was outside intervention — by either far-right groups or the police, as in the case of Montpellier and Paris Nanterre — participation levels increased dramatically.

By the end of April, 25 university campuses had been occupied or blockaded, and joint student-worker demonstrations were taking place on major rail strike days. But these actions were happening in a minority of France’s eighty-five higher-education institutions.

Disappointingly for the movement, its numbers are not noticeably higher than previous mobilizations. In the successful 2006 protests against the CPE reforms, which sought to make young people’s work contracts more precarious, more than fifty universities were occupied and blockaded; in the 1986 movement there were sixty.

Today’s movement in fact comes after a long period of decline for militant French student unions (especially the UNEF) and a series of unsuccessful defensive battles — especially the defeat of the 2007 movement against the law on university autonomy. Given the lack of a generalized mobilization of the whole of the student body, movements have been unable to make the situation politically unsustainable for government as they did in 1986, 1994, or 2006, when young demonstrators forced government U-turns.

The brutal police eviction of movement strongholds at the Tolbiac campus of Paris 1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne) and the Censier campus of Paris 3 (Sorbonne-Nouvelle) has drained energy from the movement. Before calling on riot police to evict the Tolbiac occupation, the Sorbonne’s president Georges Haddad accused the student occupiers of abetting “violence, drugs, sex … and prostitution.” Skilfully deploying targeted repression combined with proposals that split the opposition, the Macron government feels it can outlast the movement without fear of serious political consequences.

Where Are the High Schoolers?

A further problem lies in the relative absence of high schoolers (lycéens). Unlike university students, who won’t be directly affected by the reforms, lycéens have been notably absent from the demonstrations, occupations, and blockades, while the new online admissions system set up by the government has not been boycotted. Historically, mass participation by high-school students has been a determining factor for the success or failure of student movements. Lycéens were at the heart of the mass student rebellion in 1986. In the key demonstration on December 4 that year, more than half of the 800,000 marchers around France were high schoolers. Similar levels of participation were key in the successful movement of 2008, where 150,000 mobilized against Education Minister Xavier Darcos’s reforms. As the end of the current academic year approaches and just over 660,000 high schoolers have already started using the new selection system, the movement faces a critical juncture.

The responses of students at a lycée in Rennes in a recent study on student attitudes indicates possible reasons for their demobilization. Some explained that they welcomed the end of the “lottery” of university places. Others complained of a lack of information on the reform, and expressed their preference to study for exams rather than risk the threat of police violence by taking on an intransigent government.

As in any country, when the state allows standards to fall at public universities and the chances of success seem thinner after years of defeat, there is a greater pull towards seeking individual rather than collective solutions. Macron has shown he has learned from the errors of his predecessors. By introducing a reform that is hard to change, difficult to understand, and designed ambiguously to appear egalitarian, he has been relatively successful in demobilizing potential protestors. And this is happening after a decade in which the student movement has mainly been fighting unsuccessful rearguard battles.

A Common Front

The success of the French student movement will not be decided within the confines of the education system alone. Since the government announced its restructuring of the SNCF — France’s nationalized rail network — calls for a “convergence of struggles” between all sectors struggling against the “same enemy” have become commonplace. Students have participated in large “interprofessional” general assemblies at train stations across Paris. Organized mass “banquets” in the occupied universities have raised thousands of euros for strike funds. Students even led a two-thousand-strong solidarity delegation that converged with a march of striking rail workers. Yet while the student struggle in isolation shows signs of weakness, when it is combined with ongoing labor militancy in other key economic sectors like the railways, the post, and health service, it appears as a possibly crucial factor in a common front.

Given the widespread resistance to his government’s policies, both inside and outside parliament, it is far from certain that the French president will be able to achieve his ambitious agenda. From the blockade of Paris-Nanterre University to striking rail workers at the Saint-Lazare station to the occupiers of the former airport site at Notre-Dame-des-Landes, the fates of each of the sectors struggling against Macron have become more and more interdependent: a defeat for one may have major implications for the others. Faced with an intransigent government willing to use extraordinary levels of repression, a convergence of struggles is not just a slogan — it is one of the only hopes of success.

France stands at a fork in the road. The president’s recent fawning performance in Washington only further indicates the direction of travel if his opponents fail to derail his project. From the rail system to the universities, Anglo-Saxon neoliberalism in French colors is the order of the day. As France marks the anniversary of May 1968, workers and students across the country will be hoping that Macron’s chocolate-coated plans won’t last the long, hot summer.