PARIS (Reuters) - French students took their growing protest against President Nicolas Sarkozy’s reforms onto the streets of Paris on Thursday and the government accused them of jumping on the bandwagon of demonstrations over pension reform.
Hundreds of students, chanting, setting off flares and bearing banners with slogans like “Together everything is possible, in the streets!” and “Free culture, public education!” marched from the Place de la Bastille in central Paris.
With the government facing potentially huge strikes next week over its plans to reform mainly public sector pension rights, students have begun occupying faculty buildings to object against a law on university reform passed this summer.
The law, which injects 1 billion euros ($1.46 billion) into higher education, grants universities more freedom to choose their own students and opens the way for some private sector financing to boost public funding.
France’s biggest student union, UNEF, has called for students to join public sector workers in demonstrating on November 20, but some students from the more activist universities in the Paris area have decided to march on Thursday from 1300 GMT.
“It’s the enslavement of universities to the interest of companies,” said Igor Zamichiei, national secretary of the Union of Communist Students.
Student unions say the law does nothing to address student poverty and will create a two-tier system that focuses funding on a few elite institutions. But the government says they want to cash in on other strike movements and see the blockages as political.
“If you go and look at the leaflets being handed out at universities today, for one leaflet on universities ... there are four on solidarity with workers’ movements,” Higher Education Minister Valerie Pecresse said on LCI television.
Student protests have caused serious problems for previous governments, most recently in 2005 when then Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin was forced to withdraw plans that would have made it easier to hire and fire young workers.
The current protests are on a far smaller scale but they are growing and, combined with strikes by transport and energy workers, they could bolster the first major challenge to Sarkozy’s program of economic and social reform.
Police intervened overnight at the universities of Tolbiac in Paris and the western city of Nantes to evacuate students who were occupying buildings, police and student union sources said.
Police stepped in the previous night to clear protesting students from the Sorbonne, the Paris university that was at the heart of France’s 1968 student-led protest movement.
A university in the western town of Rennes was closed on Thursday for the rest of the week after students clashed with staff over the organization of a secret ballot on what action to take against the reforms, the Rennes 2 university said.
The Higher Education Ministry said roughly 10 of France’s 85 universities were blocked overnight, while student unions said the number was around 40. Thousands of students have gathered in meetings, known as ‘general assemblies’ at campuses across France this week to decide what action to take.
Additional reporting by Thierry Leveque and Pierre-Henri Allain in Rennes; Editing by James Mackenzie and Michael Winfrey