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Students demand anti-poverty measures ahead of national strike

A student holds a sign reading "Precariousness kills" at a demonstration against student poverty and financial problems in Lyon, France, 26 November 2019.
A student holds a sign reading "Precariousness kills" at a demonstration against student poverty and financial problems in Lyon, France, 26 November 2019. AFP/Philippe Desmazes

Two weeks after a student set himself on fire in protest of precarious living conditions, students blocked universities around France on Tuesday and warned they would join a general strike planned for December against policies of President Emmanuel Macron.


Student unions called a day of nationwide action to demand more financial support from the state. By midday protesters blocked several campus buildings in cities around the country and rallies were planned for the evening.

Students have been agitated since 22-year-old Anas K. set himself on fire on a campus in Lyon two weeks ago, to protest precarious living conditions he said that he and many others faced.

The student has been in hospital since his attempted suicide and is reportedly in stable condition with serious burns and a high risk of infection.

“This was an act of distress, but it is a very common situation,” says Blandine, 23, a student at the Paris Institute of Political Studies and federal secretary of the Solidaires union, of which Anas K. is a member.

“A lot of students are living with this same precariousness, not having the money to get through the month.”

Demanding more measures

Following the self-immolation, Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal announced last week the creation of an emergency hotline for students in difficulty, a winter truce for students unable to pay for housing and a special status for members of student unions.

The five student unions who called for action on Tuesday said those measures were insufficient for a situation they said required an increase in the amount and number of stipends, as well as expanded and more affordable housing, food and health services.

Student unions said the events were to pressure the government to take urgent action before a general strike against reforms to the retirement system called for 5 December, which some organisers see in relation to their own concerns of precariousness.

“We want to join the general strike anyways,” says Blandine. “[The pension reform] is giving us no perspective of ever being retired, and the perspective of precariousness until the end of our lives. So we are calling students to also join the strike.”

Youth precariousness on the rise

The student movement around questions of precariousness has been steady but relatively small, with numbers of participants at Tuesday’s events in the dozens to hundreds at campuses in cities including Grenoble, Lyon, Toulouse and Paris.

But the question of student poverty and its effects on studies, work, health and social relations has been given attention beyond the protest movement.

In a rare gesture, 47 professors at Lyon 2 University published a tribune in newspaper Le Monde calling on the government to do more to address student poverty.

“The university can and must remain open to all, but that means facing up to the challenge of how to balance such precariousness and seriously take into account the status of students who are also working,” the professors wrote.

The day of actions came the same day as the launch of the annual winter food distribution campaign of well-respected charity Restos du Coeur (Restaurants of the Heart), which said it has observed youth poverty in general is on the rise.

“We see more and more young people living and surviving in the street,” said Patrice Blanc, president of the charity.

“It’s especially true for those who were in the care of social services as minors and who had no support when they turned 18. And when it comes to young students, jobless or those with irregular work, we see growing poverty.”

(with newswires)

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