The Economist     December 21, 1968

The good things get broken, too

The only achievement of the second round of unrest in French universities may be the negative one of stopping the education minister, M. Faure, from putting his hard-won university reforms into practice. Last weekend, under the pressure of sit-ins, marches, protests and brawling, he gave university rectors authority to suspend suspected troublemakers, prevent them from taking exams and even in extreme cases exclude them from all French universities for up to five years. Students can appeal and the rectors' powers are said to be only temporary; they will lapse when the joint councils of students and teachers, to be set up under the government reforms, are working normally. But once a rector uses his powers, it may become impossible to obtain the calm conditions which the government says are necessary for the councils to operate.

Some of the protests are the result of educational or local grievances. At Nantes, for example, students occupied university buildings in protest against the shortage of teachers and the dominance of Paris in the educational structure. In Paris itself, the school of pharmacy closed down because of government delays in presenting a bill to improve the professional status of biochemists. But the political element is also important, particularly at Nanterre where the main trouble has been brewing. At Nanterre police arrested a girl who was suspected of taking part in bomb raids on French banks. Four hundred of the students tried to shut down the university until she was released, on the grounds that they knew she had not taken part. The move was not immediately successful--the girl was released on Wednesday--but when the police were brought in close to the campus and students' credentials were checked there was more trouble. Left-wing dons refused to lecture under police protection and even the dean of the faculty remarked that the police presence had mobilised the moderates into supporting the strike. The police were withdrawn from the Nanterre Campus on Wednesday; but all students were told by the ministry of education that if they continued to agitate they risked losing their scholarships and deferment of military service.

In Paris, too, extremist students have been disrupting lectures, shouting that "power is in the streets" and that "violence is true power." On Wednesday, the left-wing students union, UNEF, called for a "day of action" through students' meetings. But it all went off very quietly.

The government's reaction has been to say that university authorities must establish a dialogue with their students but that it will not tolerate disorder, even of a minor sort. The French police are in a better position to ward off trouble than they were in May. Public feeling is against the students, and it appears that the police have infiltrated the revolutionary groups, so that they now have some warning about what is likely to happen.

The political divide among the militants themselves is between the communists, who want students' union to be like industrial unions, concerned only with issues that affect them directly, and those on the left who want students to overturn the existing society. Most young people seem to agree with the communists. In a recent poll of people aged between 15 and 19, 57 per cent thought that students should not demonstrate about general political issues; only 36 per cent thought that they should.

The communists are also aware of the political risks. In the spring they feared there might be a coup from the right if the situation got completely out of hand; so they helped to keep at least some degree of order. They may well fear similar dangers now. On the university reforms, they believe that M. Faure's changes are at least worth something and that students should take part in the joint student-teacher councils. The left wingers, on the other hand, are all for boycotting the councils. They seem to believe they can recreate the mood of last May and it is said that Maoists, Castroists and Trotskyists have sunk their differences in order to sabotage the new reforms. The vice-president of the left-wing students' union, M. Jacques Sauvageot, announced that his supporters "are preparing to upset the regime and have no intention of concealing the fact."