It was a Thursday morning six weeks ago, the first week of classes, and I was running about five minutes late. So I was a bit surprised when I exited the metro station and saw crowds of students huddled in groups outside of the university instead of being inside and in class.
One I got a bit closer, the reason why became evident: the doors to the buildings had all been barricaded by tables and chairs.
Blockaded doors at Université Rennes 2, Thursday, February 1, 2018
Groups of professors and students alike mulled around, talking quietly, both parties overall much more amused than angry. I wandered around for a moment until I saw one of my language professors from last term, who upon recognizing me waved me over.
“Y’a un grève?” I asked her
“Oui”, she responded. “Vous habitez proche d’ici?”
I nodded yes.
“Donc, vous devriez rentrer chez vous,” she replied. “En fait, ils sont sur le point d’annoncer que tous les cours ce matin sont annulées.”
I nodded, but the look on my face must have betrayed me a bit.
“Bienvenue à France!”, she said with a mischievous smile.
* * * * *
About an hour later, it was announced that not just the morning classes, but that the entire day was cancelled. Several student groups had coordinated a shutdown, not just at the University of Rennes, but in several other cities across France, in order to protest the reforms that Emmanuel Macron’s government has proposed for the following school year. It was estimated that around 25% of France’s public universities had been shut down, but much of the media attention was on Université Rennes 2, as it is generally recognized as the most radical university in the country, especially when it comes to demonstrations and protests.
Later that day, the student group that coordinated the blockage announced that they would do so again the following Tuesday and then again on Thursday. And sure enough, the next week they also effectively shut down the university and once again I had unexpected days off.
During an assemblée generale the following Tuesday, over 500 students decided by consensus to to continue blocking the entrances on Thursdays until their demands are met. And sure enough, nearly every Thursday since the beginning of the term, a large group of students has shown up at campus at 5:30 AM, and physically blocked the entrances with tables and chairs, preventing anyone from accessing the building.
The tactic of the blocage, as opposed to a strike, was chosen in large part because it is more effective in shutting down operations, and they are correct in that regard. However, arguments have been made, both within the student body as well as by outside critics, that such a tactic is undemocratic as it removes the element of choice from the equation. In a strike, one can theoretically choose to walk out or choose to stay put. But the blocage prevents everyone from accessing the building, regardless of their opinion regarding what is being protested.
The critics have a point, but at the same time, one cannot deny that the reason for the protests is supported by the vast majority of the student body, as well as many of the professors.
* * * * *
Similar to their long and beautiful history of labor strikes, France has a long history of university strikes, almost always in opposition to reform attempts that are centered around concepts like ‘competition’ and ‘efficiency’. Proposed university reforms were one of the catalysts for the French uprisings of ‘68, with the education minister at the time stating that the French university system was akin to “organizing a shipwreck to find out who could swim”.
In 2009, when President Nicolas Sarkozy attempted to overhaul the entire university system with the intent of making the system more ‘competitive’, nearly a quarter of the nation’s universities went on strike, some for up to four months, until the government backed down on a majority of the proposals. Then, like now, the plan was to introduce a merit-based entry system in which potential candidates would be chosen based on their high-school transcripts, known here as a dossier.
Unlike in the United States, where a system of merit-based competitive entrance has long been the norm for most schools, France’s public university system has long been based on a system of equality where entrance to public university is guaranteed (and nearly free) to any high school student who passes the baccalaureate. Private universities in France are competitive and only accept a small number of applicants, but private universities make up less than 5% of total universities in the country, a stark contrast to the United States where nearly three-fourths of four-year colleges and universities are private.
As some universities and programs in France are naturally in higher demand than others, applicants are asked to give several choices of preferred university, and are often selected (or rejected) based on proximity and/or the desired program, or subjected to a lottery system as the last resort, but the current laws in place forbid selection based on one’s academic record in high school.
Along with the proposed university reforms is a proposed change to the baccalaureate, the French equivalent of the high school diploma. This proposal, which will require students to pick a specialization early on in their high school career, is intended to aid the aforementioned selection process. This reform is also widely opposed, in large part because it is seen as disadvantageous to poor students, whose schools may not offer as many specializations as those in wealthier areas.
From the cultural perspective that I was indoctrinated into as an American, such a system is hard to conceive of, and I’ve noticed on a personal level that the only other folks on campus that I run into here who scoff at such a system are students that come from countries where a hyper-competitive system is normalized, namely the United States and China. But to the French, where “égalité” is part of the motto of the state, such a system deeply reflects the values in which this country was founded on.
* * * * *
Other than wanting to be “competitive” on an international level, the reasoning for such reform is based on the claims that the French university system is in disarray and has been for decades, and that a competitive system is the only way to remedy those issues. Supporters of the reforms point to the overcrowding of the system and what the government claims is a 60% failure rate for incoming freshmen as the primary reason why such reforms are necessary. That failure rate has been contested by outside sources who claim that the government does not take into account the fact that those who drop out of a specific discipline often simply change disciplines and go on to graduate.
Objectively, based on both what I’ve read as well as my personal experience as a French university student, one can definitely argue that there is some truth to the idea that aspects of the university system in France are in need of reform. French universities are indeed overcrowded, underfunded, and generally disorganized in comparison to the American university system, and these conditions have indeed been overall constant for decades.
However, from the perspective of both the students as well as a significant portion of the overall population, those negative aspects are worth the price in terms of maintaining and preserving equality. While the French university system often leaves much to be desired and by international standards is not nearly as competitive and impressive as the university systems of many other Western countries, the idea that universities should be ‘competitive’ in the first place is anathema to the average French citizen. The reform proposals are (rightly) viewed as capitalist and neoliberal, and fly in the face of society that overall values equal access more than looking impressive on the international stage. And what is often pointed out and cannot be denied is that most of these issues can be solved by simply funding the universities better, and that the failure rate itself acts as a form of self-selection. The general consensus is that it’s better to allow everyone to try and to have many fail than to decide beforehand based on grades who will succeed and who will fail.
* * * * *
One thing that must be stressed, which something that I first noticed about French society during the labor strikes in the spring of 2016 and which severely differs from American society, is the willingness of people to strike and protest and often put themselves at risk in the name of changes that don’t actually affect them personally.
For the most part, those who are currently protesting will not actually be affected by the proposed changes. They are already enrolled, their place at the university is already secured. It’s those younger than them, those currently in grade school or high school, who are the ones whose future at university is potentially threatened by these changes. And while there have been a limited amount of protests at French lycées as well, for the most part the responsibility for preventing these changes has been taken on by current university students. That it won’t affect them is irrelevant to them, it’s a matter of principle and the common good.
I will never forget, during the general labor strike in June of 2016, seeing a large group of retired folks out in the streets, some with canes and walkers, shutting down the city of Rennes along with thousands of others of all ages. As I was writing a story on the events at the time, I asked an elderly man why he was out there that day.
“But you no longer work, right?” I asked him.
“Oh no, I’m retired,” he said with a laugh. “I’m out here because I want the next generation to have the same rights and the same benefits that I did.”
* * * * *
This coming Thursday, March 22, the planned blocages at Université Rennes 2 will be part in coordination with a national strike effort centered on Macron’s proposed reforms of SNCF, the French national railways. Unions representing teachers and air traffic controllers have announced their intentions to take part in the strikes. Additionally, the public transit system of Paris, RATP, is also expected to strike.
I can’t ignore nor forget the fact that we are only two months away from the 50th anniversary of the May ’68 events in France. And given the manner in which strike movements in France have a tendency grow in strength over the course of several months, notably in the springtime, I have a strong feeling that the coming months around here are going to be very interesting.
Situationist graffiti, May 1968.
* * * * *
Here are some links with details and background on the current situation. The last few are in English, but most are in French – Google Translate will fix the latter for you if you copy the link into the translation box.