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France

Montpellier dean detained, suspended after masked men attack students

© Sylvain Thomas, AFP | Students from local universities demonstrate on March 28 in Montpellier, southern France, following violence last week by masked men who attacked students protesting new rules for university admissions.

Text by Claire MUFSON

Latest update : 2018-03-29

The dean and a professor at Montpellier University law school were taken into police custody on Wednesday, suspected of taking part in a violent attack on student protesters last week. The two men have since been suspended from their duties.

Student protesters occupied the law school auditorium on March 22 to oppose the “Vidal law”, which for the first time introduces merit-based selection for public universities. Proponents hope to limit drop-outs and lower costs while opponents fear the law will create class barriers to public education.

Around midnight, masked men armed with planks of wood and batons beat and dragged the protesters from the premises, slammed the gates behind them and then retreated back into the law school entrance hall, to the applause and congratulations of surrounding faculty members and law students who opposed the protest.

Three students were hospitalised in the clashes.

Video shows faculty members applauding masked attackers

“I was able to get out quickly. Then I saw school administrators celebrating in the entrance hall. There were 20 or so with the masked men and the dean,” one student, identified only as Camille, told France 3 Television.

“It was totally fascist, they were yelling racist insults [like] ‘dirty arabs’,” said a student interviewed by France 3.

In an interview the day after the incident, dean Philippe Pétel defended the actions of the masked group, referring to them merely as “law students”.

“The students wanted to defend themselves, and I can’t blame them,” he told France 3. “The law students who were there were all against the occupation [of the auditorium] … I am quite proud of my students. I approve totally.”

France’s Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal the mastermind behind the policy that spurred the protests disagrees.

“The violence committed at the University of Montpellier is unacceptable. The two professors who were taken into custody yesterday as part of the investigation have been suspended,” she tweeted.

French authorities placed dean Pétel under formal investigation late on Thursday.

Jean-Luc Coronel de Boissezon, the other suspended professor, teaches legal history and is described by students and colleagues as “very conservative”. He is also accused of participating unmasked in the brutal eviction.

Witnesses say some of the masked attackers were junior professors and doctoral students, recognisable because they were wearing the same clothes as earlier in the day. They entered the auditorium through an entrance that is usually locked.

“Among the masked people, there may have been a law professor. Yes, it’s possible. The faculty defended their school,” Pétel told Libération newspaper.

Sophie Mazas, president of the Human Rights League of Héricault, said the suspensions were a “half measure” and called for the masked attackers to be identified and punished. She criticised the campus security guards too: “They participated in the action, using Tazers instead of protecting the students.”

On Wednesday, anti-fascist student protesters flooded Montpellier’s city centre, blocking the entrance to the university and obstructing tram lines. "Anti-fascist" demonstrations also erupted at other universities in solidarity with the Montpellier students.

The violence in Montpellier has exacerbated an already tense season on university campuses. Universities in Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Nancy have all seen demonstrations against the new admission requirements. With more than a third of students dropping out in the first year, the new measures will allow universities to set basic requirements for entry into three-year degree programmes.

Blocking university entrances is a “classic” strategy of student protests in France, said Franck Loureiro of the SGEN-CFDT, a federation of unions in the field of education.

But “a large and silent majority want to go to class and pass their exams”, Loureiro added.

Nevertheless, with final exams fast approaching, he fears the tensions on campus will only intensify.

Date created : 2018-03-29

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