France's student unions claimed victory this week after the government shelved university reforms in the face of strikes and demonstrations. But they went ahead with a march yesterday to press for total cancellation of the reforms. The protests have rocked the opening days of prime minister Edouard Balladur's presidential campaign.
Francois Fillon, the minister for higher education and research, found himself in the firing line when he first tried to argue that a circular on technical courses was "misunderstood" and a report on university reform was "non-binding". After eight hours of talks with students and academic unions on Tuesday Mr Fillon announced the circular would be rewritten and the report dropped.
More than 90,000 protesters from schools and universities all over France demonstrated against the plans.
The action was originally organised to protest against a redistribution of teaching posts between universities and to demand more resources for higher education and research. But a series of radical university reforms became the focus. Student strikes also built up in university institutes of technology over a circular restricting access to the institutes.
The university reforms, proposed in the report commissioned by Mr Fillon, included an increase in enrolment fees, eventual restriction of access to university for vocational and technical baccalaureat-holders and cuts in student support.
Before the protests, Mr Fillon said: "The report upsets some university heads, but that was its purpose and I'm delighted - this must lead to a real debate".
Government spokesman Philippe Douste-Balzy later disassociated the government from the report, saying: "There is no question of bringing into question the right to higher education for anyone - on the contrary, the government is working to promote equality of opportunity".
That was not enough of a concession for the students who planned further action. The report argues that if mass access to first-level courses is not tackled, the whole university system will be "pauperised", including research.
Mr Fillon initially complained that the protest was a "politico-union operation" and said when proposals to raise enrolment fees were made by university heads they did not lead to the same outcry.
Mr Fillon, who has hinted he expects a change of portfolio after the presidential poll, argued that the pre-electoral period is the "right moment" to begin a debate on fundamentals. But most commentators believe the sensitive issues posed by the massification of higher education in France will be avoided during the campaign.
It was Mr Fillon's attempt to rationalise one component of that expansion, the university institutes of technology, or IUTs, which led to a backtrack on the government circular. This said that the IUTs were from next October to take only the technical baccalaureat-holders they were intended for, to see their course hours reduced and access to university professional institutes made exceptional.