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Vive La Revolution! : Why Are French Students Taking to the Streets?

18/02/2014 18:42 GMT | Updated 20/04/2014 10:59 BST

Europe's youth are up in arms. Recently, my beloved Birmingham University played host to a national anti-cuts demonstration organised by student activist group Defend Education. 14 students were arrested, the Great Hall was (sort of) occupied and poor Old Joe (Brum's impressive clock tower in the middle of campus) was defaced. The protest was part of the broad student movement against the privatisation of education and massive cuts to university budgets which have led to increased fees, staff pay freezes and the slimming down of many university departments.

Watching the scenes of chaos and 'Middle Class Revolution,' at my university back home had me pondering about the student movements elsewhere in Europe. As 2013 drew to a close, we witnessed a surge in the numbers of student-led protests across the continent. In Bulgaria, 15 universities were occupied as part of the 'The Moral Revolution,' against government corruption and cronyism. The debt ridden states of Italy, Spain and Greece also saw a continued wave of student protests against austerity measures.

Back in December, I was fortunate enough to attend a French anti-privatisation student protest. I was keen to attend a protest in France as along with cheese and wine, strikes and manifestations are something that the French are notoriously good at.

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The scenes of protest on Lyon's main square Bellecour.

The protest was decided at a General Assembly at Lyon's biggest university- Lyon 2 and was organised primarily to fight against the controversial Fioraso Law. The Fioraso Law is one of a number of laws passed which cuts the budget given to universities in order to give them more autonomy. However, a large number of French students believe that this law is just one more step towards a private education system.

I chatted to a few students on the march to see if I could find out a bit more. Jean, a 22 year old Politics student explained all:

'A reduced budget will result in pay cuts for staff and more importantly universities have started seeking business investment to make up the shortfall. For example at Lyon 2, there is a Geography Masters programme funded by transnational water company Veolia and at Lyon 3, Veolia have funded a research centre in the Philosophy department where you can study the Philosophy of water. What the fuck is the Philosophy of Water?'

Good question Jean.

Jean like many others fears that opening up universities to commercial interests could undermine the value of a university education. Universities in the future could become a long production line chugging out business-ready pawns with MBAs. After all, businesses have no interest in funding Social Science degrees. As Jean summarises;

'Businesses want you to be competent not critical.'

However, it's not all that bad in France. Despite cuts to education, French students still enjoy a pretty generous funding system that makes our own system in Britain look like daylight robbery. You'd be hard-pressed to find a student in France that pays more than € 400 a year in fees and the average cost for a Masters at Lyon 2 is € 245.

Considering the fact that university education is still pretty affordable, the turnout at the march was unsurprisingly low. Officially there were 400 protestors and a large proportion of them were from extreme left groups. There was a small contingent of Maoists waving their red flags, a fairly good turnout from Lyon's young Socialists and Lyon's militant anarchists (all 2 of them) came out to show their disgust with society and the government in general.

22 year old Anthropology student Angèle believes that the protest will have very little effect on government policy and puts this and the protest's low turnout down to one factor;

'Since the huge student protests and general strikes of May 1968, the French have been known for their penchant for strikes and protest. Each year: a new problem, a new protest particularly among the student community. Now I think political action has become banal, a daily part of life. The government knows we will disagree with the Fiaraso Law and its implications but they won't bat an eyelid when we protest.'

It is probably this idea of protest as banal and commonplace that led to a calm reaction from Lyon's police. Although the protest started outside a police station, there was a refreshing lack of police presence throughout the afternoon. If anything, the few police manning the march were more than helpful, stopping traffic and allowing the protest to move on. I got the feeling that the police were there for the protestors' safety, rather than being a threat to it. A far cry from the rows of coppers kettling, punching and arresting students in England which has led to the 'Cops off Campus,' movement.

So is there anything we can learn from the French student movement? Well first off the French students and gendarmerie were good at keeping the peace. The anarchists may have looked like hard skinheads but most students just came along to wave a banner with a witty piece of wordplay or just express publicly that they think Hollande is an incompetent prick; which in essence is what democratic protest is about.

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An example of one of said pieces of wordplay. Grève means strike and rêve means dream (get it?!) So it means 'in strikes there are dreams,' (only if you dream about bus replacement services and late post.)

However, the situation in France is nowhere near as dire as it is for us in the UK or indeed elsewhere in Europe so there is no need to march, occupy, organise and vandalise. That being said next time students of Britain you decide to protest please do try and keep it peaceful. Progress never came from misspelled epigrams on historical buildings after all.

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The poorly spelled graffiti on Birmingham's clock tower Old Joe which is a Grade II Listed building. A faux pas on the part of Defend Education. (Photo by Charlotte Wilson, follow @wilsonscribbles on twitter.)