France's silent protest at student killings

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The Independent Online

Last night, in the heart of France, 600 students and well-wishers demonstrated against murder, the savage and senseless slaughter of two of their own in a small flat in New Cross, south-east London.

The banner at the front of their march read simply "Pour Lolo et Gab". Another was crowded with dozens of first names: "Jeremie, Emilie, Amelie, Aurore, Simon, Guillame, Thomas, Suzanne..." and many, many more. These were the class-mates of Laurent "Lolo" Bonomo and Gabriel "Gab" Ferez, who "sent their love" from their own foreign exchange courses "in the four corners of the world".

For French students, demonstrations – or manifs – are a way of life. But how do you demonstrate against the brutal, frenzied murder of two innocent, clever, hard-working and much-loved young men?

The answer: Silently. And with great dignity. The students filed through the university quarter, on a plateau above the industrial town of Clermont Ferrand, in a steady drizzle. In the distance, the beautiful slopes of the Auvergne mountains gleamed in sunshine.

Some arm in arm, some hand in hand, some in tears, some staring defiantly, some looking at the ground with hands in pockets, the students, teachers and well-wishers marched in silence. The only sound was of the hundreds of shoes, trainers and rope-soled sandals on tarmac and concrete.

The demonstration – it was almost correct to say cortège – extended for 200 metres. The Mayor of Clermont Ferrand, Serge Godart, was there. Half the marchers were students. The rest were teachers, local people and children.

There were young men wheeling bicycles; there were young women holding white roses. There was an old man with a dog.

To some, the vow of silence extended to the media. "From respect for the families of the dead students, and because this is not a media event, and because there is nothing we can say, we will give no interviews and make no statements," said one of the organisers.

Others were more talkative. Before the march, they spoke of their sense of helplessness; of incomprehension; of anger; of loss. None of the anger was directed at Britain. There was a grim acceptance that the slaughter of Laurent and Gabriel Ferez, both 23, must be the work of un fou – a madman.

"This could have happened anywhere," said Nils Paulhe, 22. "There is no anger against the English here, only sadness and disbelief that this could have happened in a great city like London."

The march was organised by the Clermont student federation, L'Association fédérative des étudiants Clermontois. M. Bonomo was president of the federation until February

Clermont Ferrand has two big industries: Michelin tyres and education. The town has more than 20,000 students. Most of them had already gone home for the summer vacation. Some returned especially to march.

In London yesterday, a 33-year-old man handed himself in to police in the early hours of the morning. He was taken to hospital with injuries that police refuse to detail and remained there for most of the day.

Will the murders make French students think again before studying in Britain, or going abroad at all? Is the trend for European students to migrate across borders a hostage to misfortune and danger?

Lucas Betend, 21, is an engineering student in Strasbourg but was home in Clermont-Ferrand for the summer holidays. He knew M. Bonomo as an acquaintance.

"All students now think of foreign study as a normal part of growing up," he said. "When something like this happens it makes you realise how vulnerable you are. Of course it will make our parents anxious. But what can be done? The benefits of going abroad are too great to make most students think again. Perhaps we could receive more help in finding safe lodgings. But even those problems, grappling with a foreign culture, is part of the experience."

The silent demonstration began outside the engineering school where the men studied biological engineering. It snaked in the drizzle past the front of other colleges and universities for five miles, before ending in the city centre. As it ended, the sun broke through.