Paris – Riot police raided a university in Paris on Friday to evict students who staged a three-week sit-in over new education policies, the latest flashpoint in protests against President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping reforms.
Around 100 officers took part in the dawn raid on the 22-storey tower block dominating the Tolbiac campus, one of several French faculties occupied in an echo of the momentous student-led protests of May 1968.
Railworkers, civil servants, retirement home workers, lawyers and students have all demonstrated in recent weeks over Macron’s shake-up of public services, but so far have failed to knock him off course.
A day of nationwide protests Thursday drew about 120,000 people, according to the interior ministry, well below the 320,000 counted during the last major demonstrations on March 22 and disappointing those hoping to force a showdown with the government.
Students began occupying campuses in March over a new law that introduces an element of selection for access to university courses for the first time.
The Tolbiac campus, part of Paris 1 university, has been one of the epicentres of the movement.
Some of the students threw bottles and other objects at the police when they moved in on Friday, an AFP journalist at the scene said. One person was arrested on charges of rebellion.
“We did not resist,” one masked protester told AFP, saying that the some 100 students holed up inside were “tired”.
This week the unrest spread to Paris’s prestigious Sciences Po university — Macron’s alma mater — which was taken over by protesters accusing the president of running a “dictatorship”.
But the blockade was lifted on Friday, and classes were again being held by the afternoon.
Counting the cost
The halls of the Tolbiac site have been covered in graffiti during the sit-in that echoed the student demos of half a century ago, including scrawls declaring a “free commune of Tolbiac”.
The university’s chancellor Georges Haddad accused students of causing damage worth several hundred thousand euros.
“This is the nation’s money that is being wasted,” he said.
Until now, students who pass their school-leaving exams have been able to enrol in any three-year degree course at a public university of their choosing.
The government say some selection criteria are needed to bring down high student failure rates and tackle widespread overcrowding, which prompted some faculties to resort to a lottery system to allocate places last year.
Leftist parties and several students unions are resisting the changes, which they see as an infringement of the right to education for all.
The heads of most of France’s 70-odd public universities back the reforms, as do many students themselves. Just three universities remain totally blocked by protesters.
Polls show wide public backing for Macron’s unbending approach, both with the students and workers at state rail operator SNCF, who embarked on a three-month campaign of rolling strikes this month that have caused travel headaches for millions.
The various protests have failed to mobilise the huge crowds that defied post-war leader Charles de Gaulle in 1968 — or the masses who forced a rightwing government to backtrack on pension reforms in 1995.
The rail strikes too have lessened in intensity, with only around a quarter of SNCF staff walking off the job this week over plans to cut job-for-life guarantees and pension privileges for new recruits.
Among train drivers, however, the proportion of strikers stood at 66 percent.
“We’re seeing more of an accumulation of protests than a coagulation into something stronger,” Vincent Thibault, a researcher at the Elabe polling institute, told AFP, adding that surveyed voters all “recognise Macron’s determination to see through his reforms”.
Describing the president’s “bulldozer” approach, the leftwing Liberation newspaper acknowledged Friday that weeks of protests had not been able to derail any of the government’s overhauls.
“If he wins the day Emmanuel Macron will be able to boast that he succeeded where his predecessors caved in,” it said in an editorial.