Lucy's anxiety for family

April 11, 1997

Academics answer racism. French lecturers are challenging the prejudice that makes scapegoats of immigrants

Lucy is a Congolese student at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) where she has been studying for her doctoral thesis in archaeology since 1992. Her academic progress has been faultless and she has therefore been able to keep her residence permit without complications, writes Zoe Eisenstein.

But she has a seven-year-old son and a husband who are still in the Congo and whom she saw last summer for the first time since arriving in France. "It's tearing me apart, it's very painful. We cannot be together in France so the only solution is to go home."

Her stay in France has been hard too, as she has always felt the divide between herself and French students. "When you are in the library studying and the student next to you has a portable computer to work on, it hurts."

Lucy cannot afford such luxuries and the financial situation for people like her is unlikely to improve. The Congolese government recently passed a law which means that students who are over 30 will no longer receive grants to study in France.

"It's a governmental measure that was taken without warning students," she said. "How are students in the middle of their studies in France meant to cope?" Emmanuel Terray, a director of research at the EHESS, said that foreign students now have their studies controlled by the prefecture de police who "judge students' studies and decide whether or not to grant them residence permits".

Dr Terray said: "They have no competence in this field. We often see the prefecture send students home because they didn't, for example, complete their doctorate in the required time. This policy seriously undermines France's image, its reputation, and its cultural and intellectual prestige. And all this to satisfy the phantasms of Le Pen's electorate which the government is trying to win over."

Dr Terray has run a course to sensitise his students to the workings of the French justice system with regard to foreigners.

Small groups of students are sent out to observe how foreigners are treated in tribunals around Paris and according to Dr Terray they have "already brought back some very interesting results". He is also a member of the recently formed collectif interuniversitaire, academics united since the Debre Bill to act on their concerns.

Present concerns may be generating as much discussion in French universities as was seen in 1968. Dr Terray said: "Today's problems have nothing to do with 1968. They are more like a return to the 1930s with what that implies in terms of isolation, xenophobia and the brutal treatment of foreigners."

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