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Riding wave of social unrest, French high-school students vow ‘Black Tuesday’ protests

Jean-Philippe Ksiazek, AFP | French high-school students protest in Lyon on December 7, 2018.

Even as it grapples with violent demonstrations over living costs, the French government is hunkering down for a “Black Tuesday” of protests by high-school students who have jumped onto the Yellow Vest bandwagon.

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Ever since the May 1968 protests that paralysed France and precipitated the demise of its war hero Charles de Gaulle, French governments have been terrified by the prospect of facing a united front of workers and student protests. While French universities are largely quiet nowadays, the prospect of a two-pronged offensive edged nearer to reality last week when high-school pupils seized on the momentum from the so-called Yellow Vest movement to vent their anger at President Emmanuel Macron’s educational reforms.

Up to 300 French high schools, known as lycées, were barricaded every day last week, amid scenes of vandalism, bins set on fire and violent clashes between police and students. The tense standoff made international headlines on Thursday when video footage posted on social media showed riot police in a Paris suburb forcing dozens of students to kneel down in rows, their hands on their heads.

>> Read more: Outcry as French police round up protesting high-school students

On Monday, France’s education ministry said the number of affected schools had fallen to 120, only a third of which were fully blocked. But with student unions calling for a “Black Tuesday” in lycées across the country on December 11, the relative calm could prove to be merely a lull before the storm.

Hands off ‘le bac

High-school students have been angered by President Macron's plans to change the end-of-school exam, known as the baccalaureate or ‘bac’, and replace the broad subject areas pupils currently choose from – science, literature or social sciences – with more specific courses. They demand the repeal of a reform, passed last year, which introduces stricter selection criteria for university. Critics say the government’s moves breed inequality between rich schools and poorer, peripheral ones. They also oppose plans for a national civic service for French youths, due to be rolled out in 2026.

“We will continue protesting until our demands are met,” Jules Spector, head of the FIDL union, told FRANCE 24. “The government has made no gestures towards us,” he added. “On the contrary, it is obvious they are waiting for the end of term to slow down our movement.”

Video: French students protest against education reforms

Worryingly for the Macron administration, there are tentative signs the unrest may also be spreading to universities, where students are angry at the government’s plans to hike fees for non-EU nationals in a bid to make French universities “more competitive”. The Sorbonne shut its main campus in central Paris in anticipation of possible protests, while students in Nanterre and Rennes-2 – traditionally two of France’s most politicised universities – voted to blockade their facilities.

‘Children of the Yellow Vests’

A major source of concern for France’s embattled government is the traditionally erratic and volatile nature of student protests – a potentially incendiary element at a time when Yellow Vest demonstrations have already erupted into violence in the streets of Paris and other cities. On top of their own demands, pupils in schools up and down the country have expressed solidarity with the Yellow Vest movement, which began as a protest against a tax-fuel hike but has mushroomed into a general revolt against stagnant wages and the high cost of living.

“If the student movement has taken hold it is in part thanks to the Yellow Vests,” said Robi Morder, head of the GERME centre for the study of student movements at Sciences-Po Paris, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

In both cases, Morder noted, the protesters come largely from peripheral areas and small towns that are starved of public services and jobs, and feel abandoned by Parisian elites. Behind the students’ specific demands, “their discontent expresses a more deep-seated anxiety, about jobs in particular, and a fear of the future,” he added. “In this respect, [Education Minister] Jean-Michel Blanquer is wrong to claim there is no link between the students and the Yellow Vests. He does not understand that the students in the street are the children of the Yellow Vests.”

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