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French students dig in for bitter battle against Macron’s reforms

Bertrand Guay, AFP | Students block the entrance to Sciences Po university on April 18, 2018 in Paris.

French President Emmanuel Macron faced mass demonstrations Thursday as students join trade unionists and public sector workers opposed to his reform plans. Students are protesting a bid to overhaul the university admission system.

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The main entrance to another French university was blocked Wednesday by protesting students – only this time, it was the alma mater of French President Emmanuel Macron, whose reforms the students oppose.

A group of around 70 students are occupying the prestigious Sciences Po university in the sixth arrondissement (district) of the French capital. They are part of a nationwide show of force by students and other groups opposed to the Macron’s  plans to reform the university admission system, making it more merit-based and selective.

Right now, French high school students enter their university choices into an online platform, which then allocates admission spots according to student preferences, or for highly sought-after programmes, at random. While highly egalitarian, this system leads to one in three students dropping out within the first year.

“This made no sense, was profoundly unjust, and simply an absurd form of selection. We believe there's a need to guide, accompany and inform prospective students,” said French Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal, in an interview with FRANCE 24’s sister station, Radio France Internationale (RFI).

Egalité without merit

The reputation of France’s higher education system has been falling in recent years. Only one French university made it into the top 100 of the Times Higher Education 2018 World Reputation Rankings. But at 72, Paris Sciences and Letters – PSL University lagged behind top US, Asian-Pacific and other European institutions.

While French university fees are minimal compared to most of their worldwide counterparts, the lack of selection leads to high levels of failure, which puts satisfaction ratings of French universities for international students at among the lowest in Western Europe.

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The Macron administration’s higher education reforms are aimed at tackling the selection process with a proposed bill enabling public universities to rank applicants and accept them based on their academic merit.

Re-enacting May 1968

But student groups opposed to the plan are joining trade unionists, public sector workers and train drivers protesting Macron’s reforms.

Last month, a student protest at Montpellier University in southern France gained national attention when the dean of the school called in masked thugs to break up a demonstration which saw students occupying the law school auditorium. The masked men, who evicted the students, included junior professors and doctoral students, according to witnesses.

While Dean Philippe Pétel defended the actions of the masked men, Minister Vidal disagreed. “The violence committed at the University of Montpellier is unacceptable,” she tweeted, adding that two professors who were taken into custody as part of the investigation had been suspended. French authorities also placed Pétel under formal investigation.

Meanwhile a French court has ordered protesters occupying the University of Montpellier to clear out immediately or face eviction.

Although Pétel’s actions succeeded in inflaming sentiments, opinion polls suggest the majority of French citizens back Macron’s proposed reforms.

A poll of 16,000 students at the University of Strasbourg, one of several blocked campuses, found 72 percent wanted teaching to resume, bolstering Macron's view that a minority are behind the sit-ins.

On the barricades and in the streets of Paris though, many of the banners hark back to May 1968, when campus protests snowballed into nationwide strikes. Exactly 50 years after “Soixante-huit” -- as the events of May 1968 as known in France -- disgruntled students, trade unionist and public sector workers have been marking that milestone in contemporary French history by attempting to re-enact them on the streets of France.

The outcome of this attempt at remaking old history is still to be decided as France is widely expected to experience another summer of discontent.

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