Buses, Barricades, and the Culture of Protest
April 26, 2018
“...Due to an irregular occupation of the Victoire site by a group of individuals since the 15th of March 2018, the University of Bordeaux is no longer able to ensure the sufficient security of property and persons (especially the personnel and the students) in the building in question.”
So reads the official statement (translated from French) of the president of the University of Bordeaux posted on one of the entrance doors to the Victoire campus university building located in downtown Bordeaux.
The occupation began in early March to protest against a new higher education law, Orientation et Réussite des Étudiants (ORE), adopted by French President Emmanuel Macron’s administration. Currently, the public university system guarantees automatic admissions to all French students with the high school baccalaureate qualification. However, the universities must often resort to a blind draw system to allocate limited places in each department to first-year students. With the ORE law, the French government hopes to amend this system by allowing universities to review the profiles of candidates seeking enrollment and to extend admission offers only to qualified candidates.
The University of Bordeaux occupation is part of a wider movement against the government’s attempts to introduce selectivity into the admission process of the overcrowded public universities. University students across France, notably in major cities like Paris, Toulouse, and Grenoble, have been staging protests, occupying buildings, and erecting barricades to force the universities and the government to reconsider the new policy. Some university administrations have relied on police to clear the buildings, as on the Tolbiac campus of the University of Paris I on April 20. At the University of Bordeaux, an attempt to clear an occupied auditorium in early March led to violence, with several students injured by the armed police sent in to evacuate the building.
Luckily for me, at Sciences Po Bordeaux, a private institution where I study, it’s been business as usual—impending final exams included. However, I’ve witnessed multiple student demonstrations in March and April, which frequently led to large-scale traffic and public transportation disruptions, eliciting massive public frustration.
As I recounted these stories to my friends at home, I was met with disbelief. The concept of protesting selectivity in higher education, and on such a large scale, is understandably foreign to American students, who spend their entire senior year of high school meticulously crafting college applications in order to be selected by their dream school. But to French students erecting chair barricades in their schools, public higher education is a right, not a privilege.
Soon after the protests first started, a French acquaintance laughingly told me that she spends every semester trying to combat the stereotypes Americans have about the French. “I always tell you guys, ‘It’s not true that the French strike all the time!’ and now look at us.”
The students aren’t the only ones striking either. The French rail workers’ union has been staging rolling nationwide strikes for over a month, with two-day strikes taking place every five days. The official SNCF website posted a strike schedule stretching all the way to the end of June. In early April, my host family was forced to undertake an excruciating 9-hour bus ride to Paris after a train they booked months in advance for their planned vacation was cancelled due to strikes.
Imagine the chaos that would ensue if Amtrak workers staged a one-day strike on the Boston-Washington line. France, somehow, is still functioning. To be sure, people complain as they crowd overheated buses meant to replace the blocked trams during student protests. But the general consensus seems to be that the protesters have every right to express their discontent in this way and that the rest of us just have to deal with it. It’s not that every French person agrees with the rail workers’ grievances (far from it) or that every University of Bordeaux student supports the occupiers (farther still). But every citizen is willing to forgo some daily conveniences in order to support strikes and protests as a legitimate democratic expression of public grievances. Striking, like accessible public education, is a right. But more importantly, it’s an ingrained part of civic culture.
To be sure, the United States has witnessed a significant spike in demonstrations since 2016. But I think we still pale in comparison to the French when it comes to a conscious, collective willingness to disrupt the daily comforts of existence in order to publicly assert our rights.