Barricading the University

France is today seeing one of its largest student movements in years. Protests have erupted in opposition to Emmanuel Macron’s measures to introduce academic selection for university places. Twenty-five campuses have been occupied or blockaded across the country, and students have also joined with striking rail, post, and health workers in dispute with the government. Yet while Macron is mounting one of the most radical changes to French higher education in decades, the movement faces real difficulties in blocking his reforms.

The French establishment has learned the lesson of its British and American counterparts: turning education into a marketplace takes a long march, not a sprint. The government is following the British authorities’ strategy of passing piecemeal reforms which are then difficult to reverse. If French students don’t stop this process soon, the ultimate direction of travel is a British or American-style system based on extortionate fees and long-term debt.

Yet if Macron’s method is to introduce competition, the aim is to change the student’s soul. Injecting market logic into education is meant to neutralize a key opponent: a student body conscious of its rights. More than in most countries, the French establishment fears that student movements can crystallize a wider social discontent.

Not just 1968 but also memories of the successful 1986 student movement against university selection loom large for French policymakers. That year, hundreds of thousands of students stopped Jacques Chirac’s proposed law introducing selection, contributing to his defeat against François Mitterrand in the 1988 presidential contest. More than their counterparts abroad, French students consider themselves a powerful force.

Yet Macron has done much to split the student opposition and isolate the more militant campuses. He has achieved this by leaving aside, for now, the question of fees and playing on popular grievances with the poor state of public higher education — largely due to historic under-investment and oversubscription.

At the same time, he has sought to blame the movement on a minority of “professional agitators.” And he has warned students that if they are skipping their studies to protest, there will be no easy, “chocolate-coated” exam at the end of the year. The French president’s daring reflects not mere overconfidence, but a calculated strategy.