French university exams halted for hundreds as student protests persist

Hundreds of French students saw their end-of-term exams suspended on 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.

French university exams halted for hundreds as student protests persist
Photo: AFP

Tests were cancelled for some 800 students in the southeastern city of Lyon after about 300 protesters formed 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 an estimated 60 to 80 students blocking access to the law and economy  faculties of the Aix-Marseille University.

Shortly afterwards the protesting students were joined by about 30 rail and  dockers' union activists as they squared off against police.

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

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.

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

Dozens of sites have been fully or partially blocked or occupied since the beginning of the year to protest government plans for stricter entry requirements, a key element 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 (dollars) a year.

That has led to intense overcrowding at many universities 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 a more selective admissions process as an attack on France's longstanding promise of free 
education for all.

For the far-left students who dominate the sit-ins, the protests are about much more than education — they have echoes of the momentous French  university demonstrations which spurred a social revolution exactly 50 years ago, in May 1968. 

The education ministry has vowed to ensure that year-end exams will take place despite the blockades.

It 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.

Paris 8 university in the suburb of Saint-Denis remains partly shut down, as do four other sites across France (Limoges, Marseille and two Sorbonne sites in Paris), which is “just half the number of two weeks ago,” the ministry said.

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

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

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France to make period products free for students

The French government said on Tuesday it would make period products free for students, joining a global drive to end "period poverty" - the inability to pay for menstrual protection.

France to make period products free for students
Last year, Scotland became the first country in the world to offer free universal access to period products. Photo: Andy Buchanan / AFP

Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal said that machines containing free tampons, sanitary towels and other period products would be installed in student residences and university health services in the coming weeks.

She added that the government aimed to make period protection “completely free of charge” for all by the start of the next academic year in September.

In November, Scotland became the first country in the world to make period products free for all, blazing a trail that inspired feminists and anti-poverty campaigners around the world to also take up the issue of period poverty.

In England, free period products are available in all primary and secondary schools – a move New Zealand said last week it too would implement.

In December, President Emmanuel Macron had promised to also address the issue of period poverty.

Commenting on the plight of homeless women, he noted that “the fact of having your period in the street and to not be able to buy something to protect yourself and preserve your dignity” added to the humiliation they suffered.

The move to make sanitary protection free for students comes amid a growing focus on youth poverty following shock images of food banks being swamped by hard-up students due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many students say they are struggling to make ends meet after losing part-time jobs in cafes and restaurants which have been closed for months due to the health crisis.