Students take to streets with the spirit of '68

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Tens of thousands of students across France - and their teachers - took to the streets yesterday to protest against lack of funds and overcrowding in higher education. The demonstrations, in a dozen major cities, including Paris, Toulouse, Dijon and Grenoble, coincided with all-out strikes and sit-ins at many universities and colleges and prompted doom-laden comparisons in France with the student revolt of 1968.

The march in Paris, supported by almost 30,000 college and lycee students - making it by far the largest demonstration in the capital since Mr Chirac became President - dissolved into brief, violent, scuffles with riot police when a large group of students refused orders to disperse. Stones and bottles were thrown, smashing windows at several fashionable shops and cafes on Boulevard Saint Germain, the students' traditional marching route on the left bank of the Seine.

The violence seemed to be fomented by a small number of agents provocateurs and ended with the arrival of phalanxes of helmeted riot troops and a heavy rainshower.

For most of its length, the march had been headed by students from Metz and Rouen, where the student protests had begun more than a month ago. But all Paris campuses were represented, their banners attacking Francois Bayrou, the education minister - "Bayrou: Our grants or your life!", and President Chirac - "Down with the Bayrou-Chirac budget".

The students' main complaints are that their departments are overcrowded and that teachers, teaching space and technical support are inadequate. Some of the problems reflect the rapid increase in student numbers. This year's academic year began with a total of 2.2 million students, of whom 1.6 million were at universities - 46,000 more than last year.

Other problems result from successive freezes in funds as part of the government's effort to control the domestic budget deficit, even though education is still easily the biggest spending government department. Higher education alone costs every man, woman and child in France 1,400 francs a year, but a visit to almost any French university, from old, august, institutions like the Sorbonne in Paris, to some of the newest reveals neglect and squalor on a large scale. One reason for the increase in numbers is that the youth unemployment rate - one in four of those under 25 is unemployed in France - has encouraged pupils to stay in education and anyone with the equivalent of A levels is entitled to a university place. Over the years, calls for selection have been thwarted by immediate and virulent protest from students, parents and teachers alike. Last month, while the Rouen students were on strike, the students' cause was strengthened by the publication of figures showing wide discrepancies in funding levels between universities, with La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast particularly well-funded, and Rouen particularly poorly funded. A mediator appointed by Mr Bayrou to consider the complaints at Rouen decided within a week that two-thirds of the required funds should be "unfrozen".

The success of the Rouen action undoubtedly fuelled the protests elsewhere, and yesterday, as the students marched not a mile from the National Assembly, Mr Bayrou told MPs that he would announce details of a general "emergency plan" for universities "within a few hours". The minister had said earlier that the protests might be "useful" in advancing the cause of reform in higher education. But reform does not seem imminent. Although Mr Chirac promised a referendum on education reform as one of his earliest measures as president, and amended the constitution to make it possible, it was disclosed in September that plans had been shelved for at least a year.