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French politics

Government faces angry backlash after student sets himself on fire

A picture taken on November 12, 2019 at the Higher Education Ministry in Paris shows a plaque bearing a graffiti reading "assassins" written during a demonstration in support to the student who set himself on fire over financial problems in Lyon.
A picture taken on November 12, 2019 at the Higher Education Ministry in Paris shows a plaque bearing a graffiti reading "assassins" written during a demonstration in support to the student who set himself on fire over financial problems in Lyon. GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT / AFP

The French government on Wednesday attempted to defuse the anger caused by the attempted suicide of a student who set himself alight to protest the hardship he faced.

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The 22-year-old student suffered burns on 90 percent of his body after attempting to take his life outside a university building in central Lyon on November 8.

The man, who had recently lost his student grant, remains in critical condition in hospital.

On Tuesday, hundreds of students demonstrated in Lyon, Paris and Lille over the desperate act which the student blamed in a Facebook post on successive French presidents and the European Union.

Financial insecurity

In Paris, protesters tore down the gate of the higher education ministry and scrawled "financial insecurity kills" on the wall. At Lille university a conference by ex-president Francois Hollande had to be called off. In Lyon, classes were disrupted.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez on Wednesday condemned the incidents.

"The real emotion" triggered by the man's suicide bid was "understandable", he told France Inter radio.

But the damage caused to buildings, the death threats received by managers of student bursaries and the blocking of Hollande's conference were "totally unacceptable, the minister said.

The political sciences student, who lost his grant after twice failing his second year, accused President Emmanuel Macron, his two predecessors, Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the European Union of having "killed me".

Even when he had his grant of 450 euros ($495) a month, he said he struggled to get by, adding that he had decided to "commit the irreparable" outside the student loan authority building because he saw it as a "political place".

High failure rate

In Lyon, several hundred people demonstrated outside the regional headquarters of the loan authority on Tuesday.

"It's not normal that students should have to go to such extremes to draw attention to a Kafkaesque system which crushes students and puts them in financial difficulty," Bastien Pereira Besteiro, a union activist and teacher argued.

In the student's home town of Saint-Etienne in central France, one of his cousins told a rally he had committed an "heroic act" and urged fellow students to "continue fighting".

In France, where basic higher education is free, students often repeat a year or more of their programme.

Government statistics from 2016 showed that 28.3 percent of students repeated their first year. Only 28.4 percent of students obtained their three-year degree in three years.

Many students work to support themselves, a factor often cited for the high rates of exam failure. A 2018 survey by the UNEF student union showed that 46 percent of students planned to work.

As part of his bid to cut the budget deficit, Macron last year trimmed a housing subsidy available to students.

While the cut -- five euros a month was limited -- the move caused controversy, coming as the government cut taxes on the wealthy.

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