French universities brace for new wave of hazing with 'la rentrée'
University hazing rituals – once indelibly associated with Oxbridge drinking societies and US fraternity houses – are no longer exclusively an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon, with French universities increasingly having to crack down on the practice.
For first-year university students, "la rentrée" – the start of the new academic year in France – comes with the promise of a "welcome week", evenings of organised activities and maybe a weekend trip, all with the putative aim of helping new students integrate into the life of the institution.
But a number of French universities have made headlines in recent years for the dangerous or humiliating initiation ceremonies taking place during these integration periods, despite laws designed to ban the practice.
‘Hit with a riding crop’
After paying to go on a weekend trip with other first-year students, one student at a private university near Paris said she expected fun activities and shared experiences to act as icebreakers.
“The first activity involved us passing a dirty, old roll-on deodorant from one to another, using only our mouths," said the student, who asked to remain anonymous. "After that, they made us pass a dildo down the line in the same way. If one of us refused, they (the second-year students organising the trip) wrote insults on their foreheads with a felt-tip pen. When I refused to play the game with the dildo, they made me get back on the tour bus and go to the back of it, where they’d put up a curtain. Behind the curtain, they put a blindfold on me and made me drink alcohol, even though I don’t drink.”
She said part of the ceremony involved eating and drinking foodstuffs that had gone off and drinking mixed alcohols. She even recounted an episode when they were blindfolded and hit by a second-year student with a riding crop.
It is other students who organise these initiation ceremonies, although they are funded by the institutions themselves. The student who spoke to FRANCE 24 said the school’s director was also on the trip, and in some cases was overseeing the activities.
“They took us to a forest, where they put us into teams of two, and then tied us together, either side-by-side or back-to-back. It was the university’s director who tied our hands together. I wasn’t shocked by this at the time, because I thought it was going to be a kind of obstacle course.”
The students were then told to race each other and, if they fell over, they had to drink drinks that had excrement or dead fish in them.
“Some students vomited, and if they couldn’t drink any more, [the second-year students] would just carry on pouring the drinks over their heads.”
She said that at the end of the race, the students were dirty and smelly – and the organisers just gave them bottles of water with which to clean themselves off, even though there were showers available nearby.
“I didn’t feel comfortable at the school afterwards,” she said. “I found it totally unacceptable. But most students thought it was normal – they all played along.”
'One group against another'
Marie-France Henry, the president of the National Committee Against Hazing (CNCB), explained that the fundamental principle of hazing is domination. “It’s one group against another: In these cases, older students against the new students. And the new students will accept it because they’re in a difficult position. They’re scared they won’t integrate properly, and that if they don’t participate they’ll be shunned. They don’t want to stand out – and then be punished for it.”
Henry said la rentrée is the busiest time for the organisation. Parents ring CNCB in advance to ask what the hazing ceremonies are like at the universities their children will be going to and whether they need to be worried.
Initiation ceremonies have been illegal in France since 1998. The punishment for forcing someone to carry out a humiliating or degrading act, or to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, is six months imprisonment and a €7,500 fine. But every year the headlines reveal new instances of violent and humiliating initiations at France’s higher education institutions, and some universities are starting to cancel their welcome weeks altogether.
Earlier this year, a medical school in Caen put in place anti-hazing training sessions for its students after a 2017 scandal uncovered a culture of dangerous initiation rituals. A list of hazing "commandments" published online exposed the kinds of dares that first-year students had to carry out: from rubbing nettles on their genitals or filming themselves vomiting to sexually harassing strangers in the street. Some students told an investigation that they were made to film porn scenes or have various men slap them in the face with their penises.
Students at Arts et Métiers ParisTech, a prestigious engineering school, had numbers burnt into their skin with a white-hot spoon during a hazing ritual on the Angers campus in October 2017. In January, the institution formally banned the practice – known as PVT (période de transmission des valeurs or the "passing on of values period") – across all of its eight campuses.
Increasingly, French universities are following suit. In July, the elite Insead business school announced that it had suspended its welcome week for new MBA students after four students complained about having to take part in humiliating hazing rituals.
But while there’s a growing backlash against the dangerous tradition, alumni and current students often rally in support of hazing. “I think it builds character,” Reshma Sohoni, an Insead alumnus, told the Financial Times. In a letter to the UK newspaper, another alumnus, Jakub Parusinski, wrote that the rituals carried “a challenge to elitism” that helped to “knock” cocky students “down a peg”.
But Ilian Mihov, the dean of Insead business school, remains firm: “Student health and well-being are our top priority and welcome week cannot continue if it moves students to file a formal complaint,” he wrote in a letter to alumni.