Police raid French university as anti-Macron protests flag

Around 100 French police stormed a campus building in Paris on Friday, ending a weeks-long sit in by students there

Paris (AFP) – French riot police raided a university in Paris Friday to evict students who occupied it over education reforms amid a months-long stand off between trade unions and President Emmanuel Macron.

Around a hundred officers took part in the dawn raid on the 22-storey tower block dominating the Tolbiac campus, one of several French faculties occupied in an echo of the momentous student-led protests of May 1968.

Railworkers, civil servants, retirement home workers, lawyers and students have all demonstrated in recent weeks over Macron’s shake-up of the public service, but so far failed to knock him off course.

A day of nationwide protests Thursday drew only around half as many people as a month ago, disappointing those who have been dreaming of a major showdown.

Students began occupying campuses in March over a new law that introduce an element of selection for access to university degree courses for the first time. 

This week the unrest spread to Paris’s prestigious Sciences Po university — Macron’s alma mater — which was taken over by protesters accusing Macron of running a “dictatorship”.

The Tolbiac campus, part of Paris 1 university, has been one of the flashpoints in the movement.

Some of the students threw bottles and other objects at the police when they moved in on Friday, an AFP journalist at the scene said. One person was arrested on charges of rebellion.

“We did not resist,” one masked protester told AFP, saying that the around 100 students holed up inside were “tired”.

– Counting the cost –

The entrance of the site which was guarded by police Friday, was littered with tables, banners, beer bottles, rubbish bags and other objects.

The chancellor Georges Haddad accused the students of causing damage worth “several hundred thousands of euros” over the course of their sit-in.

“This is the nation’s money that is being wasted,” he said, expressing “relief” that the protesters had been dislodged.

Until now, French students who pass their school-leaving exams have been able to enrol in any three-year degree course at a public university of their choosing.

The government say some selection criteria are needed to bring down a high student failure rate and tackle rampant overcrowding, which forced some faculties to resort to a lottery system to allocate places last year.

Leftist parties and students unions are resisting the changes, which they see as an infringement of the right to education for all.

But the heads of most of France’s 70-odd universities back Macron’s reforms, as do many students.

Polls have showed the wider public backing his unbending approach, both with the students and workers at state rail operator SNCF, who embarked on a three-month campaign of rolling strikes earlier this month that have caused travel misery for millions.

The various protests have failed to mobilise the millions who defied post-war leader Charles de Gaulle in 1968 — or the masses who forced a right-wing government to backtrack on pension reforms in 1995.

Thursday’s protests brought 119,500 people onto the streets across France, down nearly half on the 200,000 that demonstrated on March 22, the government said.

The hardline CGT union, which fronted the rallies, claimed a turnout of nearly 300,000 —  down from its estimate of half a million in March.

The rail strikes too have lessened in intensity, with only around a quarter percent of SNCF staff walking off the job this week over the government’s plans to cut job-for-life guarantees and pension privileges for new recruits.

Among train drivers, however, the proportion of strikers stood at 66 percent.

“We’re seeing more of an accumulation of protests than a coagulation into something stronger,” Vincent Thibault, a researcher at Elabe pollsters told AFP, adding that surveyed voters all “recognise Macron’s determination to see through his reforms.”

Describing the president’s “bulldozer” approach, the left-wing Liberation wrote Friday: “If he wins the day Emmanuel Macron will be able to boast that he succeeded where his predecessors caved in”.