French university exams halted for hundreds as protests persist

Paris (AFP) –


Hundreds of French students saw their end-of-term exams suspended Monday as protesters blocked access to two universities, the latest in months of demonstrations against the government's plans to introduce more selective admission requirements.

Tests were cancelled for some 800 students in the southeastern city of Lyon after about 300 protesters gathered around 6:30 am (0430 GMT) to form a human chain at two sites of the Lyon 2 university, officials said.

In the southern port city of Marseille, meanwhile, police moved in to remove dozens of protesters blocking access to the law and economy faculties of the Aix-Marseille University.

Officials suspended tests scheduled for roughly 700 students given the risk of "disturbing the public order".

A psychology exam was also called off just 10 minutes before it was due to start at the Paris 8 university in the suburb of Saint-Denis after several dozen students gathered to protest, yelling "No exams under police watch".

"This shows that when we're organised we can resist this attempt by professors to break the protest by going ahead with exams," said one protester, who gave his name as Tim.

But not everyone was supportive.

"It took me two hours to get here," said Ophelie, who lives in a village in the Seine-et-Marne region east of Paris.

University officials said the exam would be replaced with "homework".

- 'Impossible to negotiate' -

Elsewhere on Monday, police evacuated protesters at a university in the western city of Rennes, an operation carried out "calmly and without any incidents," the school's president Olivier David said.

The decision to evacuate Rennes, which counts 25,000 students, "was necessary because it proved impossible to negotiate" with the protesters ahead of finals set for May 17 and 28, David said.

Exams had already been halted last week after faculty blockades in Arcueil, the Paris suburb where Nanterre university moved the exams following weeks of student occupations, and at Grenoble in the Alps.

Dozens of sites have been fully or partially blocked or occupied since the beginning of the year in protest against plans for stricter entry requirements, part of President Emmanuel Macron's wide-ranging reform drive.

At present, anyone who graduates from high school is guaranteed a place at a public university, where admission fees are often limited to just a few hundred euros a year.

That has led to intense overcrowding as well as high dropout rates as the number of people graduating from high school has soared in recent decades, with 80 percent currently obtaining a diploma.

But many students view the government's plan for more selective admissions as an attack on France's longstanding promise of free education for all.

The education ministry said Monday that the protests appeared to be winding down, with only Nanterre still completely blocked, compared with four universities at the height of the protests.

Besides Paris 8, four other sites across France (Limoges, Marseille and two Sorbonne sites in Paris) remain partially blocked, the ministry said.

"Exams will be held, we owe it to students," Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal said on Twitter, denouncing "blockades forcing university presidents to reschedule certain exams."

Many students anxious to wrap up the year are increasingly exasperated with the protests.

On Friday, students scuffled with protesters while trying to force their way into the exam centre at Arcueil.

"I support their cause but I think they're going too far," said Jade, a first-year student at Paris 8.

"Some people are going to have to redo the year," she said. "They're handicapping us even though we haven't asked for this."