A university call to arms after an unsuccessful strike

A question that has interested me since my arrival in France has been the following: how do participants in last spring’s university protests sustain their political hopes in light of the seemingly limited success of their actions last spring? I asked around last June about this and got some nebulous answers about how you just have to keep trying, as if hope was normative even when dismay was the real political feeling of the moment. It would I suppose be exaggeration on my part to say that last spring’s strikes “failed”; certainly they may have slowed things down, and they caused an immense ruckus and drew attention and majorly developed critical analysis of the university and put a major thorn in the side of the education minister — who is still Sarkozy’s Valérie Pécresse, in case you wondered. But they didn’t manage to get the government’s university reforms withdrawn and neither did they manage the radical transformation of universities that many said they desired.

In this light, I wanted to translate a current call for a General Assembly next week at my field site in Paris-8. It goes like this:

“We have even more cause than last year to be angry and to keep fighting.”

This declaration was placed at the start of the communiqué of the National University Coordinating Committee*, which met at Paris-8 on September 30. It perfectly summarizes the feelings of everyone who was there — the representatives of 29 establishments of higher learning and research. We all know that it’s not possible to have a strike comparable to the one we had last semester; we all know that there’s no single form of action that alone would manage to make the government give in; but we all know as well that doing nothing would end up giving the government free reign to impose the worst on us.

For we must not have the slightest illusion on this point: the passage to complete university “autonomy” will wind up threatening the status of ALL workers in higher education. A small cast of mandarins and their lackeys aside, this reform will, before the end of this coming decade, force us all to have to defend our jobs in terms of criteria that the government will wholly determine.

—Autonomous to manage our own fiscal destitution,
—Autonomous to inflict the costs on the students and raise their tuition,
—Autonomous to spread precarious working conditions throughout the educational system,
—Autonomous to impose permanent competition between ourselves.

Last semester’s strike led the government to slow down in its destruction of the public service. But let’s not get this wrong: if we let down our guard, our universities will soon become service stations working under contracts with the State. The State will then retain for itself the autonomy that we claim for ourselves: that is, the autonomy to set scientific programs and pedagogical methods. And given the way the minister acts towards our university today, as in the case of the IFU, we can genuinely fear the worst.

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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.

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The Infinite Rounds of the Stubborn

ronde infinie devant le panthéon

One day a few weeks ago I stopped by a political demonstration against the French university reforms. The organizing group, La Ronde Infinie des Obstinés, specializes in what are essentially indefinitely long circular marches, rather after the pattern of a vigil. Their name amounts to “the infinite rounds of the stubborn,” though someone tried to explain that une ronde infinie could also be interpreted as a merry-go-round! At any rate, the idea is that by marching nonstop they can manifest their “infinite” determination and commitment to the cause. But what cause, you ask? Well, for those anglophone readers out there, I thought I would give a rough translation of their pamphlet (French original here). As you’ll see, on this occasion they were trying to persuade French candidates for the European Parliament to take a stand on university reforms.

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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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What makes students jump

All week, student protests have continued in France, in conjunction with a much larger and more economically important strike by transportation workers. Liberation has an article that juxtaposes “what the law says” with “what students fear.” It’s the clearest introduction to the politics of the confrontation I’ve seen so far – in spite of everything that it probably leaves out about the sociopolitical context. Let me summarize the major points of contention:

  1. State disengagement. The law mandates that universities manage their own budgets (a major innovation in the French context); it increases the power of the university president and diminishes the power of currently-existing administrative councils. Students fear that this is just an excuse for the state to abandon universities to their own devices, decreasing state funding for higher education.
  2. More social selection. The law mandates “l’orientation active,” which is defined as “aider le lycéen à faire un choix d’orientation éclairé,” i.e. helping the lyceén to make an enlightened choice of their program of study. Students view this as a process of “sélection,” which corresponds loosely to what in American universities is called “selectivity,” that is, the screening process by which some students are chosen over others. And they view this as a disavowed means of reproducing social inequality. (See also a longer analysis of social selection at café pédagogique.)
  3. Increased registration fees. Official statements to the contrary, students say it’s obvious that in the absence of state funding, universities will look to their students for financial resources.
  4. Closing of fields of study. The law says nothing about this, but the worry is that universities will be inclined to get rid of un-profitable fields. Interestingly, it seems to be students in human sciences and languages who are the most worried about the law in general. Also, Libération comments that:

    Derrière cette crainte, il y a aussi le refus de la professionnalisation des filières, des licences pros trop liées aux besoins du marché, et la volonté de défendre une université lieu de transmission du savoir.

    Behind this fear, there’s also a refusal of the professionalization of academic fields, of professional degrees too closely linked to the needs of the market, and the will to defend a university as a place of knowledge transmission.

    The whole problem of the university’s general societal role comes up here, and of its dependence on, or partial autonomy from, its economic circumstances. Even in the U.S., there are periodic conflicts over whether college education should be directly vocationally oriented. It’s remarkable that French students, not just professors (whose self-interest is obvious in this context), would defend the right to an economically irrelevant field like philosophy.

  5. The two-speed university. According to the law, each campus will be treated equally. Students suspect, however, that there will be increasing differentiation between major Parisian research universities and small provincial teaching campuses.

Last month, some visiting French anthropologists suggested that I look into the workings of the Pécresse law as it takes effect. Along these lines, I’m tempted to think of this Libération article as a set of five empirical hypotheses whose truth will emerge over the coming years.

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.