Rival unions find entente cordiale

May 21, 1999

Two rival student unions that broke up for ideological reasons 30 years ago have found they have more interests in common than disagreements, and are preparing for reunification.

The 700 delegates at this month's annual conference of UNEF-ID (Union nationale des etudiants de France - Independent democratique), France's biggest student union, overwhelmingly called for a merger with its old opponent UNEF, which also supported such a move in April.

In an interview published in Le Monde, Carine Seiler, the new president of UNEF-ID elected last year, said: "The old divisions have diminished. In practical terms the Berlin Wall has fallen, and the main differences which existed between UNEF-ID and UNEF have disappeared."

She called on all bodies representing students' interests to work together on issues. The original UNEF was formed in 1907 and reached the height of its influence in the 1950s. By the time of the student protests in 1968 it was riven by ideologically opposed factions, and in 1971 it split, principally into UNEF-ID, representing the non-communist left, and UNEF-SE (Solidarite-Etudiant), which later readopted the name UNEF, close to the French Communist Party.

While UNEF-ID can claim to be France's biggest student union - with 40 percent of the poll in the last university elections, compared with UNEF's 12 percent - only three percent of the country's two million students belong to any union, and only about 10 percent turn out to vote for representatives to various university bodies.

With such low active support, the leaderships of both unions recognise the need for united action. UNEF president Karine Delpas said at its conference: "The time has come to create a new structure which will not simply be a joining together of apparatuses, but a truly modern organisation."

A first step towards reconciliation took place in February when the two unions put forward a winning joint list, headed by former UNEF-ID president Pouria Amirashi, for elections to the board of the student social insurance society MNEF (Mutuelle nationale des etudiants de France).

14 international newsThe Times HigherJmay 21 1999 Solidarity: French students man a barricade in the Boulevard St Michel, Paris in May 1968 marc garanger

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