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French student movement growing on anniversary of May 1968

The Paris University campus Tolbiac has been blocked by a student protest movement for three weeks.
The Paris University campus Tolbiac has been blocked by a student protest movement for three weeks. AFP/Christophe Simon

As French rail workers strike against President Emmanuel Macron’s liberal reforms, a protest movement of university students is also gaining in visibility. Organisers are seeking to align the different movements in the model of mass protests that redefined French society fifty years ago.


On Monday evening, several hundred students were milling about in the foyer of the Paris University campus known as Tolbiac, which takes its name from its street on the city’s Left Bank.

“We are not letting the normal classes and courses take place in the faculty, and at the same time, we’re living, sleeping, eating and organising ourselves here,” says Noa, a 19-year-old history student who has been part of the occupation since it began three weeks ago.

“Sometimes there are students who come to say that they want us to leave the faculty to be able to have normal classes, but in general, that’s not the case.”

Tolbiac is one of about fifteen campus occupations around the country that began in protest of the government’s plans to reform entry requirements to universities.

Protesters fear plans to introduce more selective admissions will harm access to higher education, but they also say the reasons for the occupations have expanded in recent weeks.

“When the rail workers started fighting against Macron, we decided to also occupy the centre in solidarity with them,” says Yanis, 20, who studies at the nearby Sorbonne campus.

“We received some rail workers here in the university, but we also go to their demonstrations,” he continues. “We have a common history in the fact that Macron wants to destroy everything that our parents and grandparents won by struggling in the streets.”

France has a vivid memory of May 1968, when discontent among students and the working class converged in mass protests that all but shut down the country for several weeks, and public officials have been handling the current occupations with care.

Police have broken up only a few occupations, a Paris court rejected a right-wing student union’s legal challenge to the Tolbiac occupation, and university administrators have shown prudence in their public statements.

Even isolated scuffles on 22 March at Montpellier and 6 April at Tolbiac, in which groups of masked far-right protesters sought to expel the protesters, appear only to have emboldened the movement, and the left-wing National Student Coordination on Monday called for occupations on as many campuses as possible.

“We want to remake the past, to succeed what failed before,” Yanis says when asked to compare what is happening to May 1968. “Students and old workers talk about what happened fifty years ago, and the same things are happening today.”

Macron’s administration has sought to reassure students, not all of whom support the occupations, that they will be able to complete the academic year.

“2018 will not be a lost year,” Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal told French media on Monday. “Even in 68, exams took place.”


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