Students suffer in France's four-month strike

29th May 2009, Comments 0 comments

In a country with one of the lowest youth employment rates in the OECD grouping of industrialised economies, lessons at most universities are now gradually resuming after one of France's longest strikes.

Paris -- Shahinez Benabed turned up in February to finish a history degree at the renowned Sorbonne University on the Left Bank in Paris, but found the historic lecture halls shut by a teachers' strike.

Four months later, she has not had a single class during a damaging confrontation between teachers opposed to reforms and President Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing government.

Studying on her own, Benabed waited for the lessons she felt would set her up for the final exams and, next term, a master's degree. Many of her fellow students, she says, simply dropped out.

"I'm afraid about the exams," said Benabed, 22. After missing half the year, she says, "it's going to be a kind of joke exam." But "if we didn't take it, employers would say your diploma isn't worth as much."

The closure dragged on for 15 weeks as teachers and some students angrily resisted a government attempt to shake up France's public university sector, which trails behind comparable countries in world academic rankings.

Sarkozy wants to boost the autonomy of university bosses and increase their ability to seek private funding, while changing teachers' training procedures. Ministers have accused strikers of harming students' futures.

Academics' and students' unions fear the egalitarian state university system will splinter into two or more tiers of quality and funding, and some teachers fear for their job security in a school "run like a business".

Morally, Benabed supports the strikers, who say they fear that non-academics will gain power over teachers and water down professional training. But as for the strike: "I'm not sure it's achieving much."

In a country with one of the lowest youth employment rates in the OECD grouping of industrialised economies, lessons at most universities are now gradually resuming after one of France's longest strikes.

Last week the Sorbonne ended its blockade, clearing the way for late exams in mid-June while a handful of universities in other cities are still holding out.

"Exams on what? We haven't had any classes," said another Sorbonne student, a 25-year-old from Montpellier who asked not to be named for fear that criticising his teachers could jeopardise his future career.

Starting out six years ago to become an auctioneer, he took the required three-year degrees in law and art history. But this year's delay left him too late to prepare for the tough professional entrance assessment.

"It's going to make me miss a whole year," he told AFP. "I haven't seen my professors all semester. I'm against students blocking the classes. If you're democratic, you don't stop other students from entering."

Emmanuel Lurin, 34, a soft-spoken art history teacher, says he struggled with his conscience but felt compelled to support the strike.

"I felt ashamed to be on strike," he said, fingering a pile of his students' papers. He plans to mark them even though the grades would not be counted.

"I was made to feel very guilty. We are seen as selfish, irresponsible and out of touch with reality. But the reasons for it, the great stakes, have been misunderstood," he added.

"Fighting for the state to remain committed to the education of its people... was much more important than my classes, than my dignity as a teacher."

Blockages and demos often strike French schools and universities, several times forcing the government to back down. The current action, still unresolved, is less widespread and fierce but has lasted longer than most.

Mass protests against proposed job reforms in 2006 lasted three months. This year's closure of the Sorbonne has lasted longer than the action during the historic unrest of 1968, when it was shut from May to mid-June.

"I never imagined the whole semester would be blocked," said Joyce Ashford, 19, a French second-year student of art history.

"The time we have lost will not be at all easy to make up. Lessons with our professors are essential and you can't replace them with reading lists and a few books."

At the height of the movement in mid-March, 18 of the country's 83 universities were fully closed by the action, with 23 on partial strike.

Active support for the movement has since waned to a small minority, mainly in arts and humanities faculties. Teachers are widely reported to have carried out informal lessons outside the blockaded buildings.

With just six universities still on strike last week, France's right-wing government accused the blockaders of victimising students. "It's robbing them of their future," Sarkozy said.

Reformers say French universities, which have a generous admissions procedure, need a shake-up to curb the high drop-out rate. The want to give bosses the freedom to fire teachers and to control their own budgets.

Academics resent the prospect of being managed by non-academic university presidents.

They accuse the government of wanting to run universities like a business, as Lurin put it, sipping coffee in a cafe full of students and their books.

"We were so scandalised by the changes," he said. "We thought we'd have an immediate response."

The decrees are due to come into force from September. Some teachers have warned their movement will continue.

Roland Lloyd Parry/AFP/Expatica

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