University presidents stepped into the student-led fray over reforms in French higher education with their own list of demands and a flat rejection of at least one proposal by education minister Francois Bayrou.
Mr Bayrou's promised new measures turned out to be a re-hash of existing plans and an already stated commitment to bring the worst-off universities up to standard funding levels within four years within existing budget limits.
The national coordination of student representatives reconfirmed that the next national day of action, due yesterday, would go ahead.
Mr Bayrou's underlying message of "No money, more talks" was perceived as an invitation to step up militant action. The students are demanding Fr2 billion (Pounds 263.2 million) francs and 6,000 teaching posts. So far, Mr Bayrou has used just Fr200 million out of the existing budget to help the worst-off universities and announced he would continue that level of funding.
His plan to send a special envoy to all 90 universities to be briefed directly by students on their needs proved to be a major strategic blunder. Striking students in universities including Toulouse and Tours immediately voted to refuse to meet the envoys, viewing the move as a diversion from their already-stated demands.
Meanwhile, annoyed university presidents asked whether that move was an attempt to undermine their role. In a statement, the Conference of University Presidents, "strongly disapproved the sending of special envoys". "To accept the envoys would be to compromise the presidents' capacity to conduct coherent, long-term university policies", commented Bernard Alluin, the new head of the CPU and president of Strasbourg University.
The CPU became noticeably more militant after its former head Bernard Dizambourg left to take up a ministry job. Days before his new appointment, Mr Dizambourg had hailed the minister's plan to redistribute funds on behalf of the CPU.
Immediately after his departure, the CPU declared that the plan's aims "could only be met by increasing the 1996 budget". The CPU is demanding 1,100 new teaching posts and 1,200 administrative and technical posts each year, Fr370 million to cover emergency funding for the worst-off universities and to compensate universities for waiving grant-holding students' enrolment fees and a repair plan for dangerous buildings.