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French university student’s self-immolation sparks anger over living conditions

AFP | The University of Rouen, à Mont-Saint-Aignan on Octobre 11, 2017.

A 22-year-old student attempted suicide last Friday in Lyon by setting himself on fire outside a French university building. In a Facebook post, the young man decried his precarious financial situation. Student unions are livid.

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It is a tragedy that has cast a harsh and sudden light on precarious student living conditions in France. On Friday, the undergraduate at Lyon 2 University, known as Anas K., sought to end his life by self-immolation outside a building of the Crous, the regional public authority that manages university services including student housing, cafeterias and bursaries.

The student chose the location deliberately. In a message posted to social media hours earlier, he wrote, “I am taking aim at a political location, the ministry of Higher Education and Research and, by extension, the government.”

“I accuse Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the European Union of killing me by creating uncertainty over everyone’s futures,” the political science student added, noting that his monthly stipend of €450 had been withdrawn after he failed the second year of his degree for a second time. After suffering burns to 90 percent of his body, Anas K. remains in a critical condition at a Lyon hospital burn centre, according to Solidaires, the student union he was involved in.

Indeed, the native of neighbouring Saint-Etienne was very active in his school community, an elected member of the committee that oversees training and university life, according to the left-leaning daily Libération. Until the summer, a friend told Le Parisien, he lived in a dorm room in a squalid building “with cockroaches, bedbugs and humidity”.

People close to him say he didn’t ramble on about his personal problems and hadn’t divulged his intentions. “He never complains about his situation. He always expresses himself from a collective point of view,” a member of the Solidaires union, named only as Nelson, told Le Monde.

“He’s someone who thinks enormously about others,” Nelson added.

In the wake of Anas K.’s desperate gesture – an “irreparable” act, as he characterised it himself – student unions sent out a rallying cry. On Tuesday, just as the hashtag #LaPrecariteTue (financial insecurity kills) was spreading on Twitter, several hundred students voiced their anger across the country, in Lyon, Lille, Paris and Bordeaux. At the University of Lille, a lecture by former French president François Hollande was hampered by demonstrators, not without violence, and had to be cancelled, while in Paris the main gate of the Higher Education ministry was torn down and “financial insecurity kills” scrawled on a nearby wall. On Wednesday, the Lyon 2 University campus was crippled by protesters, hindering the holding of classes for a second consecutive day.

The French government is reportedly keeping a close eye on the demonstrations, wary that they could fuel unrest just as the Yellow Vest movement marks its first anniversary next weekend, and with widespread strike action being mooted for December 5 over pension reform.

One-fifth of students ‘under the poverty line’

“Today, 20 percent of students live under the poverty line, one in two students admit to skipping meals because they have to make financial choices and a third do without medical care,” Orlane François of student union La Fage told FRANCE 24. “Student financial insecurity is something concrete that we see on the ground and it continues to rise.”

La Fage manages community grocery shops on university campuses for a population compelled to live on between €2 and €7 per day, says the union, which for has years denounced the alleged inaction of successive governments.

In France, studying for a basic degree at university is free, apart from the registration fee. Other expenses, though, still add up.

“Back-to-school costs go up every year, the cost of living, too, and rents in particular, but social assistance is not up to the task,” says François, who laments the fact that student grants were frozen for five years, before a one percent increase at the start of the new school year.

The Higher Education Ministry, for its part, says it devotes €5.7 billion per year to social assistance for students – “more than the budget of the foreign ministry” – and that 40 percent of university students, more than 700,000, benefit from a means-tested grant accorded on the basis of material difficulties that would not permit undertaking or pursuing studies otherwise.

Student grants average €234 a month

Once housing assistance is deducted, a student room comes to €80 a month on average, or an all-equipped 18m2 studio to between €150 and €200, according to Crous.

“Except that the average amount of a student grant is €234 and it is only paid out for 10 months,” Chloé, from Solidaires, told FRANCE 24. “But we’re still living in the summer. And in any case, Crous housing can only lodge six percent of the total student population; so what do we do with the others?”

Moreover, the 800,000 students who received personalised housing aid (APL) were directly affected by the €5 cut of such assistance that Emmanuel Macron decided in 2017, as well as by its de-indexation relative to rising rents. According to the Fondation Abbé Pierre, which advocates on poverty and housing issues, the loss has amounted to €4.20 per month per beneficiary.

The upshot is that students are compelled to work to meet their needs. According to the most recent figures available from the Observatory on Student Life (OVE), which date back to 2016, 46 percent of university students held a paying job during the school year. Among those students, 54.4 percent said the funds their jobs provided were indispensable for their survival, up from 51.3 percent in 2013. Fifty-six percent said their working hours amounted to more than part-time.

And yet working a paying job is thought to considerably affects students’ success at school: 17.7 percent of students who hold jobs alongside their studies consider that their paid work has a negative impact on their results and 33.5 percent deem it a source of stress and nervous tension, according to the OVE’s figures. Jean-François Giret, a professor of Education Science at the University of Burgundy, told Le Monde in September, “We consider that student jobs become detrimental and affect a student’s success above the threshold of 12 hours per week.”

This article has been adapted from the original in French.

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