A desperate act by a financially insecure student is reflective of Macron’s austerity policies that continue to attack the working class. Anger and frustration is rising as the government fails to deliver on the most basic reforms to help students get by, meanwhile apathy from the representatives of the ruling class demonstrate just how out of touch they are.
Last week saw protests erupt across French universities after a student at Lyon 2 University set himself alight over financial insecurity after losing his grant, which even whilst receiving came to only 450 euros a month. This is damning indictment of the state of capitalism today.
In 2017 the National Students Union of France estimated over 20% of students live below the poverty line. This figure does not consider the number of students living just above the poverty line, who are also likely to be struggling significantly to get by day to day.
For students who aren’t eligible to receive these grants, most are forced to work different jobs on the side lines, just to provide the necessities to live. The student who set himself alight, for instance, was attempting the second year of his undergraduate degree for the third time, showing the impact that financial insecurity can have on a student’s education.
Macron has no intention to implement policies that will alleviate these financial insecurities, in 2018 he even reduced housing subsidies leaving students who rely on these grants in an even greater position of precariousness.
The lack of investment in student housing also leaves students – though only those who can afford it – with little choice but to utilise private housing companies. Macron and his government have become their own gravediggers. These policies will inevitably build on the mood of frustration and anger surrounding him, as seen in the recent Yellow Vests protests, paving the way for a huge backlash from the working class.
The student’s act of protest has not gone unnoticed – students began occupying institutions in solidarity. At Lyon 2 University students mobilised to block their campus, setting up obstacles in front of entrances forcing lectures to be cancelled.
At the higher education ministry in Paris, several dozens of protestors forced the gates open and occupied the courtyard, calling for the education minister Frederique Vidal to resign, writing ‘la precarite tue’ meaning hardship kills, on the ministry wall before leaving when the police arrived.
Elsewhere, students forced former president and so-called ‘socialist’ Francois Hollande to cancel a university conference. He quickly left the premises without seeing the protests, later dismissing the significance of such protests as students having “robbed” more than 1,000 students of the chance to discuss democracy with him at the event.
Hollande’s comments reveal exactly which class in society he represents. Hollande’s time in government served the interests of the ruling class, by maintaining capitalism and feeding the conditions of austerity and inequality among students, driving them to take part in such protests which are ‘inconvenient’ for him and his democracy talk.
Similarly, the education minister, Frederique Vidal was unsympathetic “violence has no place in a university”, refusing to acknowledge the cause of such protests, whilst Macron could only express his “empathy and compassion” at the student’s “tragic” gesture.
These solidarity protests go to show the radical layers among students, as protestors carried a “solidarity and long live socialism” banner whilst shouting anti-capitalist slogans. However, this also shows the need for organisation to mobilise more students – isolated protests are clearly not enough. When the ruling class are threatened with losing everything, they will make big concessions. There is potential with Solidaires Etudiant, a student union, who called for a nationwide rally in support.
The history of the French working class is one of radicalism. Previous events like May 68 have shown this when discontent among students begins to manifest in demonstrations and occupations. Student demonstrations in solidarity with workers during May 68 enabled the demonstrations to gain strength and momentum, spreading around France, taking the ruling class by surprise. The strength of that movement lay in the workers and students uniting. This mobilisation must take place again against Macron and the capitalist system he upholds. In doing so, we can rid ourselves of a world that creates these desperate acts all together and bring about a socialist society instead that holds no barriers to education.
Manon Powrie, King’s College London Marxist Society