A UMP student looks back on French protests

Time to get back to France and to my ambition to make French academic life more visible to anglophone audiences via this blog. I have a long list of stuff I want to post soon, but this will have to do for now — Le Monde here in France just published an article with a bunch of interviews entitled “What’s left of the movement against the Law on University Autonomy?” The most interesting statement, in my view, was by a center-right student who opposed the strikers and describes his sense of being threatened by the student opposition:

“It takes a strong stomach to oppose the strikers”

Aristote Toussaint, 21 years old, master’s degree in business law at Bordeaux IV.

In student movements, when like me you’re in the opposition, you have an interest in keeping your mouth shut. Or you need to have a strong stomach! At the Nantes fac, where I was last year, I was threatened for my comments in the General Assembly [AG]. I couldn’t go to class by myself. I didn’t hide that I was a member of the UMP [Sarkozy’s center-right party], and then? I’m proud of my convictions. The strikers [bloqueurs] are disrespectful people, they call themselves defenders of democracy but they’re anything but democrats. They’re utopians, allergic to work. I’d like to think that the leaders act in the name of some real ideology, but most people are just following the movement. The ones who criticize the autonomy of universities [recently imposed by the Education Ministry] are the same ones who complain about not getting jobs when they graduate… In the end their action accomplished nothing, aside from a few weeks of vacation. For the time being, it’s rather calm in Bordeaux, and I sincerely hope that there won’t be any strikes this year. We have to be optimistic and continue to reform [the universities], whatever it costs.

A few thoughts on this: Toussaint’s sense of disgust and contempt for the protesters is fairly palpable. Interestingly, it’s hard to sort out the political disagreement here from what we could call his defense of the individual and his dislike of what he views as an irrational, slavish political crowd. In other words,  Toussaint seems above all to dislike the sense that his political opponents (a) are intolerant of his dissent (to the point of personal threats, he says); (b) are therefore betraying the ideals they claim to stand for; (c) and worse yet, don’t appear to truly hold any ideals, but mostly just “follow” what the rest of the movement is doing. Shades of Gustave Le Bon! Usually viewed as the central figure in the late-19th-century French right-wing critique of the masses, Le Bon wrote that “crowds are not to be influenced by reasoning, and can only comprehend rough-and-ready associations of ideas.”

Curiously enough, though, Toussaint seems to complain not only that strikers are irrational but also that they have, in a sense, too many ideas. Calling them “utopians” (utopistes), he says they dislike work even as they complain of not getting jobs. (Though this seems like a contradiction to Toussaint, I think this is quite a common attitude among working people. “I need my job to live, but I don’t have to like it.” Et cetera.) Anyway, a utopian, surely, is nothing if not in the grip of a strong idea, is nothing if not known for an uncompromising refusal of the established pragmatic protocols of daily life. Toussaint’s critique thus appears not only to valorize the dissenting individual over the mindless collective herd, but also to critique the useless utopianism of work-refusal in the name of something like a procedural democracy where dissenters would have fair rights to their opinions. (But would still accept the basic outlines of the status quo.) Although Toussaint doesn’t put it this way, I see him making a critique of political utopianism in the name of something like democratic liberalism.

It strikes me as unsurprising that this critique would come from a law student. Law students seem to be known for debating, and are socialized to respect the established rules of procedure and grievance. Not to mention that law students, according to one of the other interviews here, currently have good job placement in France and therefore are probably more likely to be contemptuous of those who fail to get jobs. (A job after all can be a major status symbol for those who have them.) It’s worth noting that some of the protest against the university reform law in question did come from conservative law professors; but still, this resistance from a law student is sociologically unsurprising.

What to me is more interesting is the phenomenology of protest from the point of view of the minority opposition. It sounds like this guy was upset. Maybe frightened. Proud of his opposition. Viscerally opposed to his opponents. I don’t know if this is a common reaction, but it would be interesting to find out. And his complaint that ostensibly pro-democracy movements are actually undemocratic in their internal workings seems like something worth knowing much more about. It wouldn’t be the first time.