By Anna Tatham
‘Si on avait voulu se faire niquer par le gouvernement on aurait élu Brad Pitt’
‘If we wanted to be fucked by the government, we would have elected Brad Pitt’
Eerily evocative of events in March 1968, many students across France are currently in enigmatic revolt against Macron’s reforms of the French higher education system.
In Limoges, it started with a week-long blockage, back in early April. Chairs and bins placed by students forbid entry to the faculty. I involuntarily missed my French oral exam. I was temporarily grateful.
Walls of chairs and desks barricade entry to classrooms. This is now where some students actually live, in extreme protest, 24/7.
Then the strike extended. Indefinitely. On 7th May 2018, students at La Faculté des Lettres et des Sciences Humaines de Limoges voted to continue the strike until Macron’s reformed ORE law was withdrawn. This means there has been an absence of classes for nearly seven weeks, and counting.
The faculty has since been taken over by students, the whole atmosphere bearing an air of La Révolution. There is a temporary kitchenette, equipped with mini-ovens and crêpe machines (of course, it is France) to fuel those who man the fort. Walls of chairs and desks barricade entry to classrooms. This is now where some students actually live, in extreme protest, 24/7.
This means no classes can take place in the faculty and more importantly, a complete overhaul of exam timetabling. Exams were due to start this week but have been postponed.
Limoges is tame in comparison to other French cities. In Lyon, protesters have been met with truncheons and tear gas, in a messy ordeal over the removal of a blockage. Masked individuals, armed with bats and sticks, stormed a sit-in in Montpellier and attacked protesters. It seems universities have no choice but to close faculties and put exams on hold, for the protection of its students, staff, and the general public.
France is fiercely protective of ‘gréviculture’, and I respect that. It is a country with the highest number of trade unions in Europe, and unsurprisingly their workforce productivity is unquestionably superior to its European voisins.
I admire the perseverance. The most impassioned students will not falter until the law is revoked. I hope if I believed in something as strongly, I would too valiantly lead protests through the streets, disrupt traffic and belt chants in the sweltering May heat.
Yet what about those who are disadvantaged by the strikes?
Students have been left without access to teaching support and resources; a solid exam schedule; and a working environment which does not mimic an anarchist protest camp.
“Did you think about those who take trains, who do not have WiFi in their studio and thus have to get organised in advance?” one student exclaimed on a Facebook group which posts in favour of the strikes.
These strikes echo the argument that “the French strike first and talk only (much) later.” Students have been left without access to teaching support and resources; a solid exam schedule; and a working environment which does not mimic an anarchist protest camp.
As an Erasmus student, I do not feel it is my place to be angry about the strikes. My university experience unfortunately coincided with a dynamic period of mécontent with government reforms. I chose to study in a foreign country where strikes are an ever-present element of its culture. One must respect and understand that.
I sympathise with the French students whose university experience is negatively affected, but also those who wish to attend university in the future: those who may be disadvantaged by the currently nonsensical and arbitrary selection process. French university courses also do not have strict entry requirements; high school leavers are guaranteed a public university place regardless of their grades, and the admissions process uses a lucky draw system to randomly select who takes courses.
This ‘education for all’ discourse is arguably why universities are oversubscribed, with lecture rooms packed and little individual student support. All but one of my courses would involve students having to pull chairs from elsewhere and cram in, every week.
In corroboration with this, there is a failure rate of nearly 60% amongst first-year students.
Tuition is almost entirely subsidised by the state, with the average student paying €189 annual fees in 2017.
Macron’s reforms aim to tackle the ever-growing fragility of France’s higher education system. New reforms would mean universities could now reject students for courses which are oversubscribed, and instead give priority to students ‘whose profile, motivation and plans’ are best suited to the course.
‘The goal is not for universities to say no,’ Prime Minister Édouard Philippe seemed quick to claim. The number of applications for courses students can make has also been reduced from twenty-four to ten, and will no longer be stated in order of preference.
If you are guaranteed a place regardless, why work your hardest to get there?
The French system is a world away from that of UCAS – the rigid, painstaking process of applying for university we are all too familiar with in the UK. I remember working relentlessly on my UCAS application in sixth form, habitually refreshing my emails for the ominous ‘something has changed on your application’ email. I remember, all too well, working myself to the bone to get the minimum A*AA grades to get into Durham. I was exhausted of flash-cards and past papers, but finally getting my results in August 2015 was honestly one of the most rewarding days of my life.
If you compare the UK system with the current French one, it is difficult to see where the motivation lies in applying to university in France. If you are guaranteed a place regardless, why work your hardest to get there?
If students on strike talked about the new system first, understood the advantages of it, and then made the decision to strike, we could be in a very different situation. Their stiff and obstinate résistance means the fight drags on for the foreseeable future.
Photographs: Anna Tatham