In August, I will officially celebrate my 4th year anniversary with France. By now, you would think I know well the country I have adopted. This year has taught me that I have yet to learn about the French.
When people used to joke about how much France loves to strike, I would shrug and say, “I have lived through a few days of striking but it hasn’t been too annoying.” Since February of this year, my campus has been occupied by students. It began by only being on Thursdays, but these last four weeks we have not had classes. Students who block the school hold an “Assemblée Générale”, in which students and anyone who is part of the administration can get together and hold a vote. There is a debate on whether it is truly the right way to vote because most people that go are for the blockage (there is a debate even if some of them are actually students). When they vote, they decide whether or not to continue blocking the school.
We have not had school in four weeks. I have been posting about it slightly on my Instagram but didn’t feel like I had enough knowledge to truly write a post and explain to people until now.
Why are students protesting? To quickly explain, President Emmanuel Macron is trying to pass a selective reform to get into university. Universities would set standards to study at their school. In France, at the moment, everyone is allowed to go to university (if they pass their BAC which is the closest thing to that exam that the United States has is the SAT) but the selection process is somewhat done at random, and there tends to be more than 50% of students who don’t finish or fail their first year because they were wrongly oriented to study something that doesn’t fit with their interests. There is a problem with reorientation and even repeating a year due to this, which is a hefty cost for the state. In the end, around 3/4 of students do end up getting a degree but in a system which is complicated. By what I have understood, everyone agrees that the process needs to change so students don’t fail. That’s where everyone ends up disagreeing.
There are multiple things that people disagree with. The system that needs to be put in place and also the way that the demonstrations are being done. Some students agree with President Macron’s new law (ORE). Others believe it is the wrong way to change the system. Some believe that this law doesn’t help minorities and helps only those who are rich. They believe universities having the right to set their standards would choose those with the best grades (who typically come from a privileged background). Others are against the law but don’t believe that occupying universities are the best way to protest (which hurts students). Due to this unrest, exams have been postponed and multiple students are upset because it affects their jobs, entrance exams for other universities and vacations already bought.
Students are not the only group of people who are protesting changes that President Macron is trying to pass in France. SNCF, which is France’s national state-owned railway company is also manifesting against Macron. He wants to put in place more competition in that field instead of having only one company that controls the railways. If you are thinking about traveling to France until the end of June, I would be careful. SNCF has planned to strike every three days (two days of strike, three days normal, and so forth). You can consult the calendar here. Air France has also planned to hold a strike as well.
So at this moment, France is in somewhat of a social unrest and politically divided. It’s also important to note that these manifestations are being held 50 years after France had the worst demonstrations in their history, known as May 1968. These protests are known as a social, moral and cultural turning point in France’s history. It began by students who were protesting capitalism, consumerism, and American imperialism. General Charles De Gaulle (president at the time) even fled the country at one point, and people were scared that it would turn into a civil war. He eventually dissolved the National Assembly and called for new elections.
As a foreigner and a wannabe journalist, it has been interesting to watch these events unfold before my eyes and see people be this politically active. These issues on another hand have personally affected me and have made me nervous about my exams and my summer job. Thankfully, professors have been very kind and have kept us updated on what to study.
Hopefully this helps explain a bit about what is going on at the moment. If you have any questions about how to plan for your trip to France these next couple months, you can contact me and I will do my best to help.
Bisous, besos, xoxo,
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Special thanks to Tess Dimicoli for editing and making sure facts are correct.