The students taking on Sarkozy

Will there ever be an end to the protests that are paralysing France's higher education institutions?

French universities have been in chaos for almost four months as lecturers, researchers and students have engaged in strikes, blockades and demonstrations against government reforms. In recent days the action has apparently been losing momentum – with fewer taking to the streets and universities reopening – but activists say this is only a pause for students to take their examinations, and the movement will continue until demands are met.

The main grievances are against a law giving universities more autonomy and, particularly, a decree affecting the working conditions of university staff; cuts in the numbers of tenured academic posts; plans to reform teacher training; and reform of the public sector research system.

The crisis can be traced back two years, to the election of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had campaigned to replace France's regime of state intervention with a system of initiative and enterprise, rewarding individual merit and hard work.

He promised priority for research, including greater autonomy for state-controlled universities and billions of euros to equip France for the "worldwide battle for intelligence". He aimed to create at least 10 French centres of excellence of higher education and research to rank among the world's top institutions by 2012.

These would redress France's consistently poor performance in international rankings, such as the Jiao Tong University of Shanghai and the Times Higher-QS. One explanation for the poor showing is that these tables give a high rating to research, which in France is credited not to universities but to specialised organisations such as the CNRS (National Centre for Scientific Research), even though much of the work is carried out in joint university units.

So, research was a prime target for radical restructuring, and the government plan is to give universities a greater role and switch emphasis to applied research with increased private-sector participation. The state would continue to plan strategy, but would allocate funds to "projects" rather than automatically financing the CNRS and other organisations which would become resource agencies responsible for selecting and funding programmes.

Progress was swift. Under Opération Campus, 12 higher-education and research clusters have been selected as France's internationally competitive centres.

The controversial Universities' Freedom and Responsibility law gives control over budgets, human resources and buildings to university presidents and the new governing boards, which are reduced in size but have greater representation from outsiders, including companies. The first 18 of the 82 public universities have so far adopted the measures, and the others must follow by 2012.

From the start there was opposition to the reforms, which are piloted by Valérie Pécresse, minister for higher education and research. Opponents claimed the changes would mean an end to France's tradition of higher education and research as a public service and its replacement by a competitive, "Anglo-Saxon" system, modelled on the United States and Britain.

Students feared the introduction of high fees – France currently has among the lowest in Europe – and of selection by universities; at present anyone who has passed the baccalauréat exam has a right to a place.

Sarkozy's provocative manner raised the tension. In January, setting out his plans for the sector, including the hotly opposed reform of the CNRS, he criticised French research for being "infantilising" and "paralysing" and argued that French scientists were not as productive as British ones. Researchers reacted with fury.

Alarm increased with Pécresse's remarks that, despite extra resources for higher education and research, her ministry had to take its share of job cuts, equivalent to hundreds of tenured posts. Another major grievance is the proposed reform, announced without consultation, of teacher training, an area of responsibility shared by Pécresse and Xavier Darcos, the education minister.

The nationwide strike began on 2 February, and the protests have continued ever since, often in unusual and imaginative ways: lectures in public places such as parks, shopping malls or the Métro; a continuous parade of so-called "obstinés" marching outside Paris City Hall who clocked up 1,001 hours non-stop and inspired colleagues around the country to do the same. Protesters have turned out for their own demonstrations and joined workers at rallies on national general strike days. Lecturers have refused to invigilate or mark examinations, or to prepare the new teacher-training programmes. A national strike committee meets regularly and co-ordinates actions nationwide. Dozens of universities closed.

Meanwhile, the government has made some concessions. Pécresse has twice redrafted the contentious decree – which was, nevertheless, adopted by the government without the agreement of the major unions on the joint ministry consultative council. Darcos postponed the teacher-training reform for a year, and his agreement to give civil-service status to trainees who pass the competitive entry exam, and pay them, was welcomed by the main teaching union federation, the FSU, which did not, however, consider the gesture enough to call off the strikes.

Recent signs are that the movement has lost momentum, with fewer marches and more universities voting to reopen. A fortnight ago 15 institutions remained totally or partially closed; but last week academics and students at the most radical universities – including the Sorbonne in Paris – opted to resume work, after the longest period of disruption of higher education in France in recent history.

For now, activists say they are returning so students can take their exams and avoid wasting a year or receiving "devalued" diplomas. Prime Minister François Fillon and Pécresse are talking of moving the exams to September. Pécresse has told student representatives grants will be paid for an extra month.

University presidents have asked for calm and for negotiations to continue. An online petition calling for a new recasting of the university system, proposed by 29 eminent academics in Le Monde, is gathering support.

There are signs the protest movement is not dead. A spokesman from the action group Sauvons l'Université said activists had not given up the struggle. Lecturers at Strasbourg University and the Sorbonne issued declarations explaining why they would not give in.

However, Sarkozy himself said earlier this month that the government would not retreat on university reform, which was "in the interest of our students, our universities". The autumn could yet see a turbulent start to the new academic year.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
news
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Education

Opilio Recruitment: Product Owner

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Opilio Recruitment: Product Development Manager

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We are currently recruit...

Recruitment Genius: Qualified Nursery Practitioner - Sevenoaks

£15000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Room Leader - Nursery

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We currently have an opportunit...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick