Degrees at risk in French protests

April 7, 2006

Many French university students have been unable to attend classes over the past six weeks, or have had their studies seriously disrupted, as a result of protests against Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's controversial new labour law.

The movement against the Contrat Première Embauche (CPE) is well organised and is backed by powerful student unions such as the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France. Last week, 62 universities were either completely closed or seriously disrupted as a result of the strike. The protesters' demands are clear: withdrawal of the CPE. As demonstrations continue, neither striking students nor the Government seem prepared to yield.

But growing numbers of students fear these disruptions are jeopardising their study. Those with exams in May and dissertations to write are increasingly desperate as they have been unable to see teachers, attend classes or borrow library books.

A national, apolitical anti-blocage movement started in mid-March. While members do not necessarily share the same views on the CPE, all want to return to their studies.

As one student said: "Of course there is a problem with youth unemployment - even graduates have trouble finding anything. And the CPE is an outrage.

But how is locking us out of the university going to help?"

Miranda Jessel's university, Paris-III Sorbonne-Nouvelle, was among the first to close completely, on February 25.

"It started with leaflets asking students to attend a debate on the CPE, though it was clear it would be a CPE-bashing session. Only those who were strongly against the law went to the meeting where they unanimously voted to close the university until the CPE was withdrawn," she said.

"After a week of being refused access to the university, some students began to complain. They were told to come to debates and take part in the votes. They found it a waste of time; those against the Government could speak as long as they liked, but those who spoke in favour of reopening were booed and insulted.

"A law professor who tried to explain the shutdown was illegal had the microphone snatched away and told to leave. Votes on extending the closure typically resulted in about 800 for and 30 against, but this was not necessarily representative of the university's 19,000 students."

Ms Jessel said many felt cheated of their right to study. "One student doing a masters said: 'Whether one agrees with the CPE or not is not the point. The best way to get a job is to get a good degree. How can that happen when we are unable to learn?'

"Some lecturers sympathise with the protesters and are on strike themselves. Others are furious with the shutdown and are helping students write petitions and examining the legal case for reopening the university."

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