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British student protesters are ‘inspired by the French’

British students are planning a further day of direct action after taking to the streets in protest at public spending cuts and proposed increases in university fees. Their leaders say they took inspiration from recent strikes and protests in France.



British students - who took to the streets of London in their thousands this week - were given impetus by recent street protests in France, according to union leaders.
Mark Bergfeld, who is on the Executive Council of the National Union of Students (NUS), told FRANCE 24: “We were very inspired by events in France, by the solidarity shown between students, their teachers, between pensioners and public sector workers.
“The events this week in the UK are a sea change. The solidarity we have seen in France has come to the UK and we are going to see more of it.”
French workers and students turned out in huge numbers this autumn to strike and demonstrate against  French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s (ultimately successful) bid to raise the minimum retirement age in France to 62.
And in London on Wednesday an estimated 52,000 students took to the streets to protest against government plans to raise the maximum universities can charge in fees to £9,000 a year.
A large group (estimated at 5,000) headed to Millbank Tower, headquarters of the British Conservative Party, which has been in government in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats since May’s general election.
The coalition has announced huge cuts in public spending in order to reduce the country’s budget deficit. Some 500,000 public sector jobs are to go in the next four years, and the retirement age has been raised to 66 (from 65 for men and 60 for women).
Calls for protesters to be prosecuted
In angry scenes at Millbank Tower, students smashed windows and daubed graffiti on the walls, while some gained access to the roof.
In images that dominated headlines in the British media, one protester was seen to drop a fire extinguisher from the top of the building, an action immediately condemned by students on the ground and later by unions.
NUS President Aaron Porter told FRANCE 24 that "the actions of a violent minority have distracted from what was a hugely positive demonstration."
And many newspapers, which published pictures of protesters at Millbank Tower, called for offenders to be identified and prosecuted with the full weight of the law.
“Dropping a fire extinguisher was not clever,” admits Bergfeld, a 23-year-old sociology graduate. “But the vast majority at Millbank were not doing anything so stupid and need to be defended from this media witch hunt.”
A statement, signed by many senior members of the NUS including Bergfeld, as well as celebrities and heads of industrial unions, praised the students' actions at Millbank.
It reads: “We reject any attempt to characterise the Millbank protest as small, 'extremist' or unrepresentative of our movement.
“We celebrate the fact that thousands of students were willing to send a message to the Tories that we will fight to win. Occupations are a long established tradition in the student movement that should be defended.
“It is this kind of action in France and Greece that has been an inspiration to many workers and students in Britain faced with such a huge assault on jobs, benefits, housing and the public sector.”
More protests
A further day of protests, being organised by grassroots students’ movements, is set to take place on November 24, but without the official support of the NUS.
Bergfeld said: “If the Tories do not back down with their plans to decimate universities and to ruin communities across the country, they must expect people to be angry and militant. We need barricades, universities occupied, students walking out.”
Adding that the protest movement should expand beyond its student base, he said: “We want to raise the slogan calling for a general strike.”
Photo: Geoff Dexter


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