The dean of a university in the southern French city of Montpellier was suspended on Thursday after being accused of abetting a violent attack on students protesting education reforms that have sparked demonstrations at campuses around the country.
In the past few weeks, protesters have shut down or severely disrupted classes at several universities over more stringent university entrance requirements introduced by President Emmanuel Macron. Universities in Paris, Montpellier, Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes and Nancy have all been affected to various degrees.
The situation escalated sharply last week in Montpellier, where hooded men armed with bats stormed a lecture theatre to dislodge students staging a sit-in. Videos shared on Facebook showed several men, their faces concealed, hitting students in the theatre of the law faculty with sticks and bats. Three people were injured in the skirmish, which has sparked solidarity “anti-fascist” demonstrations by students at other universities, including in the northern city of Lille.
Several students claimed they recognised several professors among the attackers. On Wednesday, the university dean Philippe Petel was arrested along with a professor on Wednesday, on suspicion of abetting or participating in the eviction. Petel, who was suspended by Higher Education Minister Frederique Vidal, denies the allegations.
The attack has sharpened tensions between supporters and opponents of the protests that began in February over a new law that for the first time introduces an element of selection on merit for entrance to university.
In France, students can apply for any university course as long as they pass their Baccalaureate, the final exam of secondary school.
High dropout rate
With lecture halls bursting at the seams and over a third of students dropping out in their first year of university, Macron’s centrist government has sought to tighten standards. Starting this year, universities can set basic requirements for admission to three-year degree programmes. Students who do not meet the criteria will be offered a place on condition that they agree to take extra classes.
Opponents argue that the restrictions are elitist and penalise students from poorer backgrounds. But their sit-ins have caused frustration on some campuses, with students in Montpellier insisting on their “right to study” as end-of-year exams loom.
Vidal, the higher education minister, set out “two red lines” Thursday on French radio: “no violence on campus… and allowing the university year to end and exams to be held in the best possible conditions”.
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