French universities
exploding in anger

For over ten weeks now, strikes, mass meetings, demonstrations and occupations have been daily occurrences in an unheard-of wave of protest by university staff and students against Sarkozy’s neoliberal reforms of higher education.

20 April 2009

A dozen mass demonstrations, of tens of thousands of people, have been held, Motorway tollbooths have been occupied and university council meetings invaded. Parallel university lectures, in streets, shopping centres or on trams have been used to help popularize the movement. In a spectacular action known as “The springtime of the chairs” all the chairs were removed from many universities to stop classes, and used to build protest sculptures. “University all night long” events were organized. In front of Paris town hall there is a permanent march, twenty four hours a day which began three weeks ago. When President Sarkozy mocked the idea of studying “old literature” like ‘The Princess of Cleves’, the movement reacted with public readings of this work (considered to be the first true novel written in French, in 1678) across France, and a parody of it,  lampooning Sarkozy, circulated by internet. One group of researchers produced a movement rap song. And hundreds of university staff have resigned from their administrative responsabilities

Though some of the trade union leaderships, and many trade union activists have played an important part, the movement is independent of any particular organization, and is impressively democratic. There have been eight day-long national delegate meetings to decide on strategy and tactics. And the movement is far from over yet.

Previously, university lecturers had been moderate and “sensible” in the extreme and had not had a national strike for at least thirty years. Generally speaking, they had followed mass student movements with a tolerant but very distant gaze. The stereotype of hordes of Marxist lecturers in French universities, if it ever was true, is at least twenty five years out of date! Many were more used to dusty seminars than to noisy demonstrations. As the weeks went by, teaching staff were joined in many universities by students (some mass meetings had over 2 000 students in them) and sometimes technical and administrative staff. Often students subsequently took the lead in organizing mass action. Separate national delegate meetings for students, admin and for doctoral researchers, hammered out lists of demands and tactics for action. A lot of universities have been occupied or blockaded (in one university the president physically attacked one of the students!) In one or two places, the presidents were blocked into their offices.

Attacks
Two major government attacks sparked off this unprecedented movement. The first was on the working conditions of university staff. Whereas at the moment all lecturer-researchers are paid to do fifty per cent teaching and fifty per cent research, the government proposed that the university presidents would decide who should do more or less research or teaching, fixing a “job balance” for each individual member of staff, according to whatever priorities the president chose. This proposal was of course to be only a first step to the introduction of full-scale managerialism in the universities, and a concentration on profitability and private funding before everything else, whereas at the moment collegial organization is still strong. The almost-simultaneous announcement that university presidents would have their salaries increased by “at least 20 000 euros” showed the real aim.

All this was accompanied by measures and speeches by President Sarkozy and his friends making even clearer their intentions. Far more money was available in tax breaks for company research and development programmes than for university and public sector research. Sarkozy’s concept of research seems to be limited to the “need” for French capitalism to be competitive, and his favourite criterion is “How many patents have you put in for?” Researchers in history, mathematics, social sciences, biology, literature and many other areas can’t see the world like that.

Sarkozy went on to announce publicly in a speech in January that French researchers were conservative, comfortable, refused to have their work evaluated, and published “30 to 50 percent less than British researchers on a similar budget.” The speech, filled with untruths from beginning to end, infuriated even the most moderate, and made clear that the reforms announced were part of a wider commitment to reduce universities to a subservient status to private companies. Students realized that such a process threatened them too. At the moment it costs under three hundred euros to enroll at university, but a group of 92 Conservative MPs sponsored a parliamentary bill in February to make students pay high tuition fees, under a US style system of student loans to be paid back from later salaries. An OECD report in February calls for much higher tuition fees to be imposed on students. This despite the fact that a similar system imposed in Britain ten years ago has led to tuition fees of over 4 000 euros a year and rising, as well as to a sharp fall in the number of students from poorer families going to university.

The French system
As part of the post-war settlement, and also as a result of the struggles of 1968, the French University system contains a large dose of collegial organization. Recruitments, promotions and so on are decided, for lecturer-researchers, by the National University Council (CNU) which works on a largely unpaid basis and of which two thirds of the members are elected by lecturers and professors. Far from perfect, this system  has nevertheless meant that staff have a very large measure of freedom in choosing what research to do and when, and are under very little managerial pressure.

The system has been being eroded for some time. Job cuts in administration have meant a bigger administrative workload for lecturers, constantly changing ministerial demands on the content of programmes have made life harder for both teaching and administrative staff, more and more lecturer posts have been replaced by “teaching-only” posts (with double the teaching hours), filled by secondary school teachers (who often do research anyway but don’t get paid for it). But these latest government plans were of a different order altogether.

The second major attack, carried out simultaneously (in a bizarre ignorance of basic political tactics) aimed at replacing the national competitive exam which recruits secondary school teachers (the CAPES), with a wholly new system, introduced without consultation, made up of “Masters in Education”. The new scheme would mean it was more expensive to train to be a teacher (since the final year under the previous system had been paid), and that the level expected of the new teacher in their own discipline would be very much lowered. Even worse, the proposed system is specifically designed to ensure there are tens of thousands of teachers on casual contracts, who have a Masters degree in Education, but are not qualified to take on full-time posts. This proposed reform angered both university lecturers who teach the CAPES, and the trainee teachers themselves.

Concessions
As the weeks went by, and the movement remained determined, the government made a series of concessions to the movement. They announced a freeze on job cuts for two years, they increased the role of the CNU in deciding promotions and evaluations, they wrote into the new decree the right for a lecturer-researcher to veto changes in their job balance, and they delayed part of the Masters in Education scheme for one year. They also agreed to some old if minor demands of the trade unions on other issues. Vigorous debate continues in the movement about the value of these concessions. But the dynamic of the government attack, if slowed, has absolutely not been abandoned. Making universities put competition with other universities at the centre of their strategy is a key principle for Sarkozy’s government. Similar attacks on the public hospital system have caused outrage, and 25 of the top hospital chiefs in France have signed an open letter denouncing the centrality of purely economic measures of hospital care.

In addition, with many other  strikes going on around the economy, in particular against redundancies, and two huge national strikes in the last three months, the government doesn’t want to back down and risk encouraging other malcontents. Ex-prime minister De Villepin expressed mid-April his fears that “there is a risk of revolution in France.” This may be overstating the case, but it shows the elite are scared! Last December, rather than risk a major school student strike, the government backed down on reforms for secondary schools.

The least combative of the four trade unions organizing university teaching staff have agreed to sign an agreement with the government, but the most important unions, and many thousands of non-unionized lecturers are not satisfied with the concessions, and remain determined to continue the movement.

The strike has not been the only method used by the protesters. The new teacher training programme would need to be written by lecturers, and 90% of universities have refused to write the programmes, or have refused to submit them to the minister. The scheme cannot go ahead without them, but the government is hoping that the movement will collapse and then the programmes will trickle in. This seems unlikely. Some university governing councils have voted a demand to the government to withdraw the reforms, and as protests continue, the government will probably back down further. Whether or not they will manage to calm the movement simply by postponing the reforms and making secondary concessions is far from clear.

Exams
Now that end of semester exams are approaching, the government (and the media) are putting on additional pressure, hoping that the professional conscience of lecturers will lead them to abandon the protest movement in order to be able to deliver the qualifications their students need. Each university or department has decided locally how to react. Some have started teaching again, with catch-up courses, many have used a combination of internet and other means to communicate with their students sufficiently to set meaningful exams. Still others have voted to cancel the semester and base the year’s marks for students solely on their performance in the first semester or in the habitual re-take exams at the end of June. In addition, in many universities, the marks received will not be communicated to the administration as they normally would be. But in almost all universities, many forms of protest continue.

If and when the government will back down is not clear, but already the movement has transformed tens of thousand of lecturers who have been confronted with new problems other social movements had seen before them – in particular problems of media bias and of police violence against demonstrators. As we write, the movement remains determined and strong, and an all-out victory cannot be ruled out. Sarkozy may come to regret having transformed over 50 000 university lecturers into angry opponents.

John Mullen
20.04.09
 

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