French student protest may herald wider strife

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The Independent Online
THOUSANDS of students marched through Paris yesterday to protest against poor facilities in French universities, a demonstration which added to a general feeling of unease ahead of what some fear may be a strife-ridden winter.

According to a police estimate, 5,000 students followed the call of two left-wing unions to demonstrate against overcrowding and a shortage of lecturers. This, however, seemed to be well under the real total, which was probably nearer 20,000, a creditable but not spectacular figure by French standards.

The protest, timed to coincide with a National Assembly debate on financing higher education, preceded a national 'day of action' this Thursday organised by unions representing workers in state-owned companies. Many of them are worried by the implications of the privatisation programme introduced by the seven-month-old government of Edouard Balladur.

The importance of yesterday's student protest was more in its symbolism than in its leaders' demands. It was the first time since 1971 that the pro-Communist and pro-socialist wings of the Unef students' union have joined forces for such a protest.

As student agitation has grown in recent weeks, mainly in the provinces, parallels have been drawn between this autumn and the autumn of 1986, the last time a conservative government ran the country under the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

Then, student protests against proposed university reform ended in tragedy. A young man, who turned out to be a bystander, died after being beaten by riot police. The reform plan was withdrawn and Alain Devaquet, the minister responsible for the universities, resigned. The general social atmosphere degenerated and the student protests were followed by several weeks of strikes, some of which paralysed rail and Paris city transport during particularly cold weather.

The 1986-87 tension was one of the factors counting against Jacques Chirac, the then prime minister, who failed in his 1988 bid to challenge Mr Mitterrand for the presidency. Mr Chirac is expected to be the Gaullist candidate at the next presidential election in 18 months' time, when Mr Mitterrand is expected to step down.

Mr Balladur's government has already had one serious setback, during a strike by Air France ground staff last month. Despite statements that it would stand firm, the government finally withdrew a re-structuring plan.