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Why are French students smashing down the education ministry's gates?

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Why are French students smashing down the education ministry's gates?
Students protest at a Lyon university where a fellow student set himself alight. Photo: AFP
15:42 CET+01:00
A young man sets himself on fire, a government ministry is attacked, and a French ex-president is chased out of a university: French students are on the warpath. Rory Mulholland finds out why.

Ashwin, a 23-year-old film studies student at the Sorbonne university in Paris, says that he gets a €450 monthly grant from the state but that it was way below what he needed to live decently and study properly.

He rented a studio apartment for €600 a month for a while, with help from his parents, but in the end he had to move back home because he couldn’t make ends meet. 

And even now he still has to work in a clothes shop a couple of days a week to earn pocket money, he told The Local as he headed to class on Wednesday morning. 

It was in protest at authorities removing his €450 grant that a 22-year-old student in Lyon last Friday doused himself in petrol and set himself alight. He survived but is still in hospital in a critical condition.

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The slogan "financial insecurity kills" sprayed on a window during a student demo in Lyon. Photo: AFP

“I think he went too far,” said Ashwin, the Sorbonne student, although he said he supported the demands made by his counterpart in Lyon, who has been named as Anas K.

Anas, a political science student who lost his grant after twice failing his second year, in a Facebook post accused President Emmanuel Macron, his two predecessors, Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the European Union of having "killed me".

Even when he had his monthly grant, he said, he struggled to get by, adding that he had decided to "commit the irreparable" outside a university building because he saw it as a "political place".

"Let’s fight the rise of fascism, which only divides us... and liberalism that creates inequalities," he wrote in his message.

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Many students across the country agreed with him about the financial hardship that students face. They demonstrated on Tuesday in Lyon, Paris, Lille and several other French cities.

Protesters in the capital ripped down the gate of the higher education ministry, called for the resignation of Higher Education Minister Frédérique Vidal, and scrawled “murderer” on the wall outside.

In Lille, a talk in the university by ex-president François Hollande had to be called off at the last minute after demonstrators, some chanting "Hollande - murderer!", invaded the lecture hall and ripped up copies of his new book.

Lyon 2 university, where Anas K studied, remained closed on Wednesday after protesters again blocked its entrance.

President Emmanuel Macron deplored the student's "tragic" gesture at a cabinet meeting on Wednesday and expressed his "empathy and compassion," government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said.

But Ndiaye said "nothing" could justify the acts of vandalism committed during protests triggered by the man's self-immolation.

But such condemnations are unlikely to bring a halt to the protests, and the government fears that students might join forces with anti-pension reform protesters who plan nationwide demonstrations early next month. 

While university education costs only a couple of hundred euros a year in France, many students complain that if their parents don’t subsidise them - and often even if they do - they can’t live decently.

Only about a third of students in France get a state grant - which is means-tested - and the maximum monthly amount is €550, which in many cities is barely enough to pay rent on a studio flat.

The biggest French student union, the FAGE, said that 20 percent of students live below poverty levels, and that their financial difficulties often lead to mental health problems, with 37 percent of them feeling depressed, and eight percent say they have contemplated suicide.

But several of the students arriving at the Sorbonne on Wednesday said that while they agreed with student union demands for more financial help, they thought the incidents on Tuesday, and the student setting himself on fire, were far too radical a response. 

“To set yourself alight is a sign that you are a weak individual,” said Fares, a 20-year-old chemistry student. 

“You can always get by without much money, there’s always a solution,” he said, adding that he lives with his parents and that his €300 grant is enough for his needs.

Pablo, a 23-year old who said he gets no grant from the state, said he didn’t condone the attack on the education ministry but understood why it happened.


Pablo, a student at the Sorbonne in Paris, brings a protest placard to class every day. Photo: The Local

“If dialogue is impossible you shouldn’t be surprised if people get angry,” said the mechanics student, who every day brings to class with him a placard plastered with a slogan denouncing the “elite” and accusing them of being undemocratic.

In a sign that students might eventually join with so-called yellow vests and other anti-government protestors determined to bring President Macron to heel, Pablo always attaches a fluorescent yellow vest high-visibity jack to his placard.

 
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