Student elections in Aix-en-Provence

Last week I went to visit Aix, which might become one of my major fieldsites next year. The university building itself was falling apart; as it turns out, it was the one featured in last year’s complaint about the physical decrepitude of French universities. In spite of the physical decay, it was all lush with plant life.

Now as it happened, the week I arrived they were in the last days of campaigning for student elections to various university administrative councils, primarily the Administration Council (Conseil d’Administration, which is the major decision-making body) and University Life and Study Council (Conseil des Etudes de la Vie Universitaire, which handles pedagogical matters). Graduate students are also eligible to sit on the Scientific Council (Conseil Scientifique), which sets research policy.

This was the courtyard by the main entrance. In the center of the photo you can see the little group of people handing out leaflets, in what became practically a competitive sport to reach the maximum number of potential voters.

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Student violence in Aberdeen, 1861

I was reading a curious old book called The Rise of the Student Estate in Britain (by Eric Ashby and Mary Anderson, 1970) and I came across a rather shocking passage:

This happened in 1860 in Aberdeen. The students wanted Sir Andrew Leith Hay, the ‘local candidate’, and there was in fact a numerical majority for him, since the numbers in the ‘nation’ which comprised the Aberdeen constituency were greater than those in the ‘nations’ which came from outside Aberdeen. Reckoned by ‘nations’ and not by numbers, there was a tie between Hay and Maitland, the solicitor-general. The principal gave a casting vote in favor of Maitland. This was taken as a deliberate move to back the professors against the students. In March 1861 Maitland came to deliver his rectorial address. The academic profession, along with the magistrates and the town council, entered the hall. Cheering, hooting and yelling greeted their appearance; this was to be expected: it was the traditional accompaniment to every rectorial address. But then the scene became ugly. Chunks of splintered wood hurtled across the hall. The audience were, of course, expected to come unarmed, but some of them had brought in hammers and other instruments with which they uprooted the seats and smashed them into pieces suitable for projectiles.

The principal took his place at the rostrum and called on the meeting to join him in prayer. Out of respect for the kirk there was a temporary lull. But the uproar resumed as soon as the oath was administered to Maitland, and he stood at the lectern to give his address. At this point some of the professors left the platform ‘to remonstrate personally with those taking a leading part in the row’.The rector kept smiling and endeavoured to proceed with his address, but at this stage blood was trickling down his face. The more respectable students were ashamed, and added to the pandemonium by hissing. There were cries of ‘Call in the police’. After ineffectual intervention by the principal, several police were ‘brought up to the hall door, but no force was used by them. . . ‘. The rector calmly and impressively completed his oration, the principal pronounced a benediction, and the proceedings, ‘which had lasted upwards of two hours’, were brought to a close. (20-21)

I’d like to imagine that these days outright violence is no longer a part of university politics, but there are just too many counterexamples to take that claim seriously.

Militant student slogans and iconography in Toulouse

Last week while I was in Toulouse, I went to take a look at the local university (Mirail), to see if it turned out to be the one in the video I posted about last week. And indeed there were a large number of decrepit buildings, occasionally graced by lovely flowers. But the buildings also turned out, like Paris-8, to display an intense activist visual culture: of graffiti, of slogans, of icons, of murals, of messages that contradicted each other, of clashing color.

toulouse political slogans 1

No to the LRU! says a figure falling into a trash can. Or is it the LRU itself that’s falling into a trash can?

toulouse political slogans 2

“For a critical and popular university [fac]!” Apparently this is a traditional militant slogan at Toulouse.

“Get a new slogan please!” is the caption written below by someone who apparently disagrees or is simply bored.

[La fac, i.e. la faculté, is a now bureaucratically obsolete term that used to designate a college, a faculty, a division – as in the Faculty of Arts, the Faculty of Law, etc. It is still used in common parlance to refer to the public universities – les facultés – as opposed to other institutions of higher learning (private business schools, elite government institutes, and the like).

toulouse political slogans 2a

“For a hard and copulating university!”

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University teachers join french student strikes

Liberation reports that twenty universities are still affected by student strikes, and more interestingly, that teacher-researchers are joining students in the streets. One said:

«La loi attaque la fonction publique», s’indigne Noël Bernard, maître de conférence en mathématique à l’université de Savoie, à Chambéry, et membre du Snesup-FSU, premier syndicat du supérieur. Il dénonce «le recrutement massif de contractuels», «l’autoritarisme instauré pour le président d’université et son cénacle», «les équipes qui seront pieds et poing liés aux bayeurs de fond privés».

“The law attacks the public function,” exclaimed Noël Bernard, a master of conferences in mathematics at the university of Savoie, in Chambéry, and a member of Snesup-FSU, premier union for higher education. He denounced “the massive hiring of contract workers,” “the institutionalized authoritarianism for the university president and his circle,” “the research groups that will be bound hand and foot to those who lust for private funds.”

The teachers have their own group, “Sauvons l’université” (Save the university), with its own call for action.

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experts on french student movements

Apparently there is a group of French historians specializing in academic contestation: “Jean-Philippe Legois est historien spécialiste de la contestation universitaire, membre du Germe (groupe de recherche sur les mouvements étudiants) et de la mission Caarme (pour la création d’un centre d’archives sur les mouvements étudiants).” Legois was interviewed in Liberation; he thinks that the strikes could either grow substantially or remain small. Which is obvious. A more interesting point is that he thinks the question of the “politics” of student groups – which seems to be code for government accusations that they’re a front for the “extreme left” – is a nonissue, the real question being the creation of contingent coalitions of different groups in different circumstances. As for the question of the Pécresse law’s opening of the university to big business, he seems equivocal.

A broad spectrum of feelings is apparent in the comments on the article. One says:

au fond ceux qui manifestent ne sont-ils pas en plein desarroi? on leur a fait croire que l ‘université était accessible à tous, tout le monde pouvait être docteur, chercheur ……. et non même à la fac il y a un filtre( à la sortie) il vaut mieux faire des etudes modestes et respectables, que de “longues études” qui ne menent à rien! je suis d ‘accord dès que le privé sera dans l ‘université alors celles-ci brilleront davantage comme à l ‘etranger c ‘est vrai mais attention la fac n ‘est pas faite pour tout le monde! il faut l ‘accepter et accepter ses limites. (on voit même des bac pro s’inscrire en medecine sic!, en science!) l echec est programmé non?

Which means roughly:

at heart, aren’t those who protest in total confusion? they were led to believe that the university was accessible to all, everyone could be doctor, researcher…. and that even at the fac there wasn’t a filter (at the exit). it’s better to do modest and respectable studies, than “long studies” leading to nothing! i agree since the private [sector] will be in the university, they’ll shine like they do abroad, it’s true. but pay attention, the fac isn’t made for everybody! you have to accept it and accept its limits. (one even sees vocational high school students enrolling in medicine, in science!) failure is planned, no?

It’s a very conservative pragmatism to argue that “the fac isn’t made for everybody,” but I think it’s an interesting claim that failure is planned. There’s more to look into when it comes to planned failure and disappointment in academic institutions.

French student strikes gaining ground

Protests against the loi Pécresse are mounting rapidly today, it seems. The law decentralizes the universities, gives more power to university presidents, and allows universities to own their own property directly. Twenty universities are on strike, according to Liberation. Students claim to be against the “privatisation” of universities and against the police. Their communiqué is interesting:


Vous êtes tous au courant : les facs vont bientôt se mettre en grève contre la loi Pécresse et la privatisation des universités. A Paris 8 aussi évidemment : la privatisation devrait aboutir d’ici quelques années à la fermeture d’une bonne partie des facs non rentables, à commencer donc par Paris 8, « la fac du 93 ». Même les profs vont faire grève : ils n’ont pas trop le choix s’ils veulent pas se retrouver au chômage.

La privatisation ça commence par le retour à l’ordre. A Paris 8, c’est déjà fait : vigiles, caméras, et conseils de discipline. Vendredi 26 octobre c’est au tour d’une étudiante en philo de comparaître devant la section disciplinaire de l’université. Que lui reproche-t-on ? D’avoir protesté contre le fonctionnement bureaucratique du service des inscriptions. Le service des inscriptions, vous vous souvenez ? Le bureau où vous avez failli pété un câble après avoir fait la queue pendant trois heures ?

Il va de soi que la loi Pécresse ne passera pas, comme les autres provocations du même type que la droite avait tenté en 1976, 1986, 1994, et 2006. Mais au-delà de la loi Pécresse, il est clair que la marchandisation des universités a commencé depuis longtemps, sous la droite comme sous la gauche. En témoignent les hausses régulières de frais d’inscription, l’augmentation de la sélection, la présence de patrons dans les conseils d’administration, et la création de diplômes d’entreprise.

Au-delà de la loi Pécresse, c’est ce processus qu’il faut combattre au niveau local : la marchandisation, et le flicage qui va de pair. Pas de supermarchés sans vigiles, pas de flics sans patrons ! Que ce patron s’appelle « l’Etat » ou « Coca-Cola ».

C’est dans cette perspective qu’il faut combattre les conseils de discipline, pour ce qu’ils sont : le bras répressif de la bourgeoisie dans les universités. C’est dans cette perspective qu’il faut défendre tous les étudiants qui passent en conseil de discipline, que ce soit pour fraude aux examens ou pour s’être révolté. Parce que la lutte contre le capitalisme, ça commence par la résistance contre le travail. Parce qu’à l’université, la fraude aux examens est la première forme de résistance à la sélection sociale ! Contre l’université policière, luttons pour l’abolition des conseils de discipline !

Roughly translated:

We need an end to the persecutions!

You’re all up to date: the facs are about to go on strike against the Pécresse law and the privatization of the universities. At Paris 8 it’s already obvious: in a matter of years, privatization will lead to the closing of a large part of the unprofitable facs, starting with Paris 8, “the fac of 93.” Even the profs will go on strike: they will have no choice if they don’t want to be out of work.

Privatization begins with the return to order. At Paris 8, that’s already taken care of: watchmen, cameras, and disciplinary councils. Friday October 26th, a philo student appeared before the university’s disciplinary section. What was he accused of? Of having protested against the bureaucratic functioning of the enrollment services. The enrollment services, you recall? The office where you snapped after having waited in line for three hours?

It goes without saying that the Pécresse law won’t get through, like the other provocations of the same type that the right has tried in 1976, 1986, 1994, and 2006. But beyond the Pécresse law, it’s clear that the commodification of universities began a long time ago, under the right as under the left. As demonstrated by the regular raises in enrollment fees, the increased selectivity, the presence of managers in the administrative councils, and the creation of business degrees.

Beyond the Pécresse law, it’s this process that must be fought at the local level: commodification, and the policing that goes with it. No supermarkets without watchmen, no cops without bosses. Whether this boss calls himself “the State” or “Coca-Cola.”

It’s from this perspective that we have to fight the disciplinary councils, for what they are: the repressive arms of the bourgeoisie in the universities. It’s from this perspective that we must defend all the students who go before the disciplinary councils, whether for fraud in exams or for rebellion. Because at the university, fraud in exams is the first form of resistance to social selection! Against the police university — let’s fight for the abolition of disciplinary councils!

In the U.S. I’ve seldom heard of students protesting the commodification of education as such. And the class rhetoric is much more potent than I usually encounter. And finally, it’s interesting that the Right has supposedly tried to privatize universities four times already; I should look into that. See also this site.