By ERWIN FREED
“I Accuse Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the European Union of Killing Me”
On Friday, Nov. 8, a 22-year-old student at the University of Lyons set himself on fire. Known in the press as Anas K, the man’s act of self-immolation took “aim at a political location, the Ministry of Higher Education and Research and, by extension, the government.” The university sophomore had recently lost his paltry €450 stipend, just enough to live in a humid roach infested apartment; €450 is barely over a quarter of the monthly minimum wage in France.
The general situation in French universities mirrors the individual circumstances of the young man in Lyons. While university remains free, housing subsidized, and students receive living subsidies, the lives of people attending universities are becoming increasingly precarious. In a context of rising rents and general inflation, Macron’s government has been cutting into the livelihood of university students while simultaneously giving big tax breaks to the rich.
Cutting education until it bleeds
Trends in university funding are replicated at all levels of French education. The 2019 French national budget cut 1800 teaching and administrative jobs in the education sector, mostly for secondary school. Alongside increased student sizes, the cuts have been borne by increasing teachers’ workloads, including adding a full additional hour to the working day, and class sizes with 35 students or more per teacher.
As costs of living steadily increases and student benefits are steadily lowered by the state, more and more students are forced to work in order to survive. This creates a contradictory situation in which public benefits are tied to one’s status as a student, but the benefits are too low to cover basic necessities, and having a job while in university drastically decreases chances of staying enrolled. First-year drop-out rates are fifty percent in public universities and as high as 90 percent in specific fields like medicine.
University admittance is becoming harder to obtain as well. A major means of receiving basic social support, entering public universities is becoming increasingly out of reach for a section of the population that left groups and student unions call “san facs,” roughly translated to “college-less.” Anti-Capitalisme et Revolution, a current in the NPA, explains that the “The majority of ‘sans facs’ students are young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, working-class neighborhoods, [children] of workers, and foreign students. They are the ones the bourgeoisie does not want to see on the benches of the university anymore.”
In 2018, the Macron government implemented the so-called Student Orientation and Achievement Law (ORE). The ORE is a move towards putting caps on university enrollment for the first time since the 1960s. It includes programs like the Parcoursup, an algorithm that is supposed to determine university placement. Parcoursup leaves students waiting without knowing until just before the semester starts both what university they will attend or even if they will attend at all. Parcoursup “reinforces already well-established social inequalities” in placement.
Students take control; administrations on patrol
The reaction to Anas K’s self-immolation was immediate. Solidaires, the student union Mr. K was involved with in Lyons, called demonstrations and ultimately voted to blockade the university on Wednesday, Nov. 13t. Across the country, students and workers have mobilized in solidarity with K’s immiseration. However, students and workers have already been in motion against these conditions through their unions, the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), and other groups.
At Nanterre University, the section of National Union of Students of France (UNEF) has been constantly holding demonstrations, occupations, and blockades to guarantee admittance for the “san facs” and to force the state to act against rising costs of living. Multiple students have already have already served for probation on frame-up charges and again the university is attempting to wield the repressive power of the state to silence those fighting for equitable access to higher education for workers and immigrants.
Four student union leaders have been threatened with disciplinary measures for a 53-hour occupation of the administration building by a large portion of the student body. Ayoub, Victor, Barth, and Selim, the student leaders under attack, have faced constant harassment from university president Jean-François Balaudé, including being barred from campus. The tactics taken by the university, including refusing to negotiate for the “san facs” inclusion, involving the police, and repressing the militant leadership, mirror those used by the bosses to try to smash the nearby strike of postal workers in Haut de Seine. That strike lasted 14 months and was a resounding victory for the workers. Many of the students now fighting for their own rights stood in solidarity with the workers from SUD-Poste 92 and now the workers are also standing with the students.
We in Socialist Resurgence demand that the intimidation campaign against Victor, Ayoub, Barth and Selim and all militant French workers end immediately!
For the right to free quality public education!
Precarity Kills! La précarité tue!
There will be an action in defense of the four on Nov. 18, endorsed by 20 organizations including major trade and workers unions, community groups, and political parties. Information here: https://www.facebook.com/events/1208861292641639/