French campuses on edge after Montpellier attack

As Macron government seeks major reforms, allegations emerge that academics were among attackers at university 

March 29, 2018
Montpellier attackers

An attack by masked men – allegedly including academics – on protesting students has inflamed tensions on French campuses as the government tries to push through controversial reforms that would introduce elements of selection to higher education in the country.

Philippe Pétel, who resigned as dean of Montpellier University’s Faculty of Law and Political Science after the incident, had been accused of allowing the men – reportedly armed with wooden planks and tasers – into the building.

Videos of the incident on the night of 22 March have gone viral in France, and show attackers, some in balaclavas, beating students who had occupied a lecture theatre in protest at proposed reforms.

Some protesters believe there were academics from the faculty among the balaclava-wearing assailants, reported Liberation, something Professor Pétel acknowledged as a possibility in an interview after the incident. He did not respond to a request for comment from Times Higher Education, although he has denied being at the lecture theatre.

Two days later, the university announced the resignation of Professor Pétel, although he did not offer any explanation about why in a public statement. The faculty was due to remain closed until 3 April.

A spokeswoman told Times Higher Education that enquiries were still continuing to establish what had happened. 

The French government, under President Emmanuel Macron, is currently trying to push through changes to French higher education, allowing universities to select which students they take on oversubscribed courses, and to demand applicants take pre-university preparatory courses. It also wants students to specialise earlier when they take the pre-university baccalaureate qualification.

The government argues that these changes will better prepare students for university and reduce the dropout rate, but the proposals have triggered strikes, protests and blockades from lecturers’ and students’ unions, who fear they will undermine equal access to university and disadvantage poorer students who are less able to navigate a more specialised system.

As the 50th anniversary of the student protests of 1968 draws near, the Montpellier incident is not the only example of growing tensions on French campuses.

The government recently dismissed the management of the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, a humanities and social science institution that is being blockaded by students opposed to its merger with other universities in the city.

According to Sebastian Stride, a higher education consultant at SIRIS Academic, the government has now given up on the idea of a merger, and wants to replace the management in order to resolve the blockade.

A febrile atmosphere on French campuses was “not unusual”, he said, and added that “it’s not yet at boiling-over point”. Only “very few” students had actually taken part in protests against the government reforms, he added.

However, “you never know, because things can boil over from one day to the next”, he said. Had the Montpellier incident been even more serious, the “whole of France could be up in arms”, he added.

Catherine Paradeise, an expert on higher education policy at the University of Paris-Est, said the tension was growing. “There is rising protest, mostly in the social sciences and humanities, all over the country,” she said. But “it is not so clear whether…this will become a large national movement”.

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