France's Socialist government today said it would push ahead with controversial plans for changes in the country's outdated system of higher education despite a wave of protests by students and university teachers.
Thousands of student demonstrators opposed to the reform bill converged on the National Assembly today as deputies began a week-long debate on a problem that successive French governments have been unable to solve. But the relatively modest scale of the demonstrations, combined with the obvious political divisions among the demonstrators and the approach of examinations, suggested that the protest movement is in danger of running out of steam.
The lack of unity among the students was reflected in the organization of three separate marches on what was supposed to be a day of joint action against the proposed changes. Left-wing students, who, oppose a tightening of requirements for entering specialized fields of study, refused to march with students represented by the National Coordination Committee who are worried about the possible decline in educational standards and threats to university autonomy.
The march organized by the Coordination Committee attracted a good-natured and well-disciplined crowd of about 10,000 demonstrators chanting, "Students are angry" as they were prevented from crossing the Seine River to reach the assembly building. The leftists numbered around a thousand. A third demonstration made up of "independents" attracted fewer than 200 people.
Earlier, student leaders had predicted that at least 30,000 people would turn out on the streets following a month of occasionally violent protests against the proposed changes. In fact, the demonstrators proved no match for the strong forces of riot police who sealed off all roads leading to the National Assembly and even took the precaution of preventing. Metro trains from stopping in the area.
Representatives of the demonstrators, including a group of law professors in their academic robes, were allowed through police lines to lobby deputies at the National Assembly.
There were several scattered clashes with the police this evening following the peaceful dispersal of the main demonstration. Police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a breakaway group of about 2,000 stone-hurling demonstrators who set fire to barricades near the assembly building. At least 30 people were injured when the clashes continued into the night with police charging students who had erected barricades in the Latin Quarter.
Presenting the proposed bill to the assembly, Education Minister Alain Savary described the existing university system as outdated and incapable of fulfilling the economic and social needs of a developed society. This assessment is shared by politicans, students and teachers, but there is wide disagreement on how to solve the problem.
Previous attempts to reform an educational system whose basic structures date back to the time of Napoleon all have met with failure. In 1968, a student revolt against attempts by the government of Gen. Charles de Gaulle to restrict access to the universities almost resulted in the fall of the government.
The standards of higher education are widely believed to have declined with the demographic explosion that took place in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in a fourfold increase in the student population. There is also a widening disparity between the elite grandes ecoles, whose graduates are virtually guaranteed employment in government or industry, and the overcrowded universities.
The reforms proposed by the Socialist government leave the grandes ecoles largely untouched. Insteadthere is an attempt to make the universities at once "more democratic" by insisting on an open admissions procedure and "more responsive to the needs of society" by introducing an as yet undefined process of resticting access to certain fields after the second year of university study. The aim of the proposed changes is to train more people in skills needed in today's economy.
The result has been to antagonize virtually everybody. Some students complain that their degrees and job opportunities will be "devalued" if they are required to follow a general studies course for two years before specializing. Others, taking their inspiration from the ideas of 1968, are against any weeding out at all. At the center of the unrest have been students of such subjects as medicine and law whose job prospects are the most uncertain.
There have also been protests against the government's proposals to give businessmen and outside professionals a say in the running of the universities. The aim of the reform is to make courses more relevant to the needs of industry, but the critics say it will undermine traditional university autonomy and reduce the level of student representation on university councils.
The right-wing opposition in the National Assembly has said it will use all the tricks of parliamentary procedure to block the bill. This is likely to further water down the impact of the government's reforms, which already have been revised several times under pressure from interest groups.