A glimpse of the French student movement (from the inside)

France is famous for its rebellions, revolts and revolutions. But these don’t solely belong in the past. France regularly faces upheavals and right now is one of those moments. Strikes and occupations have spread like wildfire across the country in recent months in response to President Emmanuel Macron’s controversial social reforms.

While the government is trying to brush aside the protests and claim that they are in a minority, this isn’t the case. On top of that, the month of May is particularly symbolic. So let’s begin with a trip down memory lane to May 1968.

May 1968

The sixties were a time of global political unrest. Across the world the youth were looking to force a total change of society and culture.

In Paris, a series of student occupations against capitalism, consumerism, imperialism and traditional conservative values began springing up. All forms of protests and rebellion were met with force by universities officials and the police. Attempts to quell strikes and occupations simply fanned the flames and regularly led to out-and-out street battles in the Latin Quarter in which the Sorbonne was located. The Sorbonne housed the University of Paris and was one of the most illustrious universities of Europe. While universities were all cradles of social unrest, the Sorbonne, with its physical centrality and the size of its student population, played a particularly important role.

Street battles simply increased the numbers of those getting involved in the nationwide wildcat strike and occupations. The country became completely and totally engulfed by social upheaval. Barricades were built, cobbles were chiselled out from streets, and protesters confronted the police and attacked all symbols of capitalism. By the third week of May, the wildcat strike involved 11 million workers – more than 22% of the French population.  

President Charles de Gaulle, in a surprising turn of events, quietly left the country and rumours of his resignation began to spread. To all those involved it felt as though they may actually have won. But, de Gaulle returned just a few days later, dissolved the National Assembly and announced a snap election for the end of June.

Many workers then returned to work after striking deals with their employers. And the police disbanded the Sorbonne University – now its faculties are spread throughout Paris so as to not have a single, central cradle of rebellion. But France was not as it had been; one could not and cannot ignore what happened in those days. The established hierarchy and relationships between the youth and their parents, workers and their employers, and citizens and politicians had been completely upended.

Many have taken to writing about the parallels between then and now and you cannot deny that there are indeed similarities. But, there are also vast differences.

The biggest difference is simply that it is not 1968. Time has passed and the world as we know it has changed. The last generation hadn’t yet encountered the newest mutation of neoliberalism. However, for the youth of today it is all that we have known. It has shaped our lives as we watch the levels of inequality worsen. We have been born into the mass surveillance era in which we cannot move across a city without being carefully watched. In the 1960s, CCTV had not yet been fully developed let alone used to line our streets. While we must look back and celebrate 1968, we must also allow what is occurring now to have its own space and be given the attention it deserves.

Students and workers unite and fight!

Macron, pretending to toe the centre line, is neoliberalism personified. With a past in investment banking his social reforms are aimed at loosening and privatising the public sector and heightening inequality. Since being elected in May 2017 his approval ratings have slowly but surely been dropping.

The social reforms that Macron wants to introduce affect many different aspects of society and therefore the source of discontent is varied. Although each is mostly unconnected, each front has been fought on united ground and with solidarity between those affected – both on and off the streets.

In transport, rail and air workers have gone on strike with their demonstrations bringing thousands to the streets. The waste collectors and the energy sector have also gone on strike. In the countryside, there have been protests against the reduction of the number of rural schools and changes to the speed limit.

Macron is also attempting to create an even more oppressive system for those applying to migrate to France. This includes doubling the time a person without papers can be kept in a holding centre. In response to this, students across the country went into occupation in their universities to give migrants a space in which they were welcome and could spend time without fear.

In education, the most debated part of his reforms is the revamping of access to higher education through a change to the end of the Baccalaureate. In France, higher education is fully public and is not determined by grades that you get at the end of your secondary school. Changes would mean that entry is based on a grading system, which would inherently lead to a more elitist university system – like the one in the UK. Unemployment in France is close to 20% for young people. There aren’t many prospects for the youth and the little that does exist is being pulled from under their feet.

Born in 1977, Macron is the first French president to be born after 1968. This is the fiercest social unrest that he is yet to face. Could this lack of personal memory mean that he also lacks knowledge of the possible and of the power that the streets can have?

Paris VIII

Across France over 15 institutions have gone into occupation. Initially the number was lower, however after a sit-in in Montpellier was attacked by masked-up men beating students with sticks and bats, more students joined in protest of the harsh treatment their peers had received.

I was lucky enough to spend five days at the occupation in the north-east of Paris at Saint Denis University. Initially, part of the university was occupied and opened to migrants. Creating a space within which they could sleep, be themselves and feel safe. Once Macron announced the planned reforms to education, students further occupied other parts of the university in protest. This means that the majority of the university is now under student occupation.

Just prior to the disbandment of the University of Paris, faculties were opened up. The Faculty of Humanities was founded in 1969 in direct response to May 1968. By 1971 it had gained full university status and was renamed "Université Paris VIII".

The university has a radical reputation as it went into occupation almost immediately after forming and is particularly well known for its radical philosophy department. To try to limit this militancy the university was moved to the area of Saint Denis – outside of central Paris and in a banlieue.  This has not limited the protest spirit of students and in many ways has helped their fight against the establishment. Those in the banlieues, the suburbs, are often the poorest in Paris and are regularly treated as second class citizens by authorities. Police try to limit their entrance to these areas due to the hatred that is felt towards them. This has, in some ways, helped keep the occupation safe as police presence against them would instantly give them the support of locals.

The students wanted the occupation to be “live, to make it a place to disseminate knowledge and organization against multiple attacks by the government”. This has meant that the occupation has been filled with a busy and creative energy. Inside of the campus they have organised workshops, movie screenings, concerts, discussions and debates. Within it, they have also created safe spaces to allow conversations about oppression to occur without those that may replicate those oppressions limiting them. The space as a whole has been turned into a wonderful display of art. As well as creative workshops, the once pristine, clinical walls that did little to inspire have been covered in expressions of creativity, anger and dreams.   

Universities are never just academic establishments. They are much more and students at Paris VIII have been embracing this. Events are not limited to students and are often graced by the presence of striking workers and supportive professors. While the occupation doesn’t have everything solved and there are still improvements that are needed, it shows no signs of abating any time soon. Across the country protests have been springing up almost as a daily occurrence and occupations have been going from strength to strength.


Photo: Demonstration in Paris 2018  - Tamara Hopewell 

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