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In Paris, numbers – and spirits – of student strikers are waning

The protests that blocked classes at dozens of colleges ended up underscoring the need for reform in a university system that the government says is outmoded and underperforming.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 2009


After four months of marching in circles, 24/7 protest readings of 19th-century French novels, text messages, and long meetings, the French student strikes of 2009 are slowly becoming more whimper than bang. While a hard-core set of students vows to carry on opposition to a major government reform of higher learning, their numbers and spirit are waning.

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Ironically, perhaps, the chaotic protests that blocked classes at more than 50 of 85 French universities, "became their own advertisement for the need for reform," says international relations professor Frederic Bozo of the Sorbonne, a moderate.

As 29 leading French scientists and intellectuals noted in a statement a week ago that found flaws with both students and government: "It is now obvious that the French university is not only in crisis ... it is nearing a state of agony."

Off Avenue Saint Germain, at the grand courtyard inside the Sorbonne, students clustering beneath a statue of Victor Hugo are despondent and angry that their effort to oppose got no traction.

Unlike the famed May 1968 student protests, when police stormed the Sorbonne, public support for these strikes is low.

"We've met twice a week since February, I've been here every day," says Pauline, an education major at the school. "Everything about the [reform] law is wrong."

Students at a nearby medical college said their peers were trying to relive the 1968 protest, urged on by professors.

But not all students claimed to be leftists and not all opposed President Nicolas Sarkozy – though all did say the president's January speech about an "infantilizing system" of "weak universities" inflamed the situation.

Mr. Sarkozy is the first French president to try to reform colleges away from an elite system that offers top-grade schools for 4 percent of French students while leaving the rest to fend for themselves in a sprawling university system whose degrees are less respected.

At its core, the strike pits a broad if not always deep sense among students that they are upholding a concept of pure education and public service – which needs more funding and should not mimic a more-commercial American model – against a tough government view that colleges are outmoded, inefficient, inflexible, and underperforming in an era of globalization.

Two different reforms tied to funding are creating "autonomous" authority at universities, allowing private-sector funded research, changing teaching and research loads for professors, and reframing funding between the elite schools and the broader university system.

In a nation as conscious of bureaucracy and detail as France, university reform is an endlessly dense political hot potato: the left wants state oversight improved; the right wants to allow private-sector involvement.