A lesson in protest for foreign students in France

Tue May 19, 2009 10:08am EDT
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By Estelle Shirbon

PARIS (Reuters) - For her cultural project on France, British student Alice Williams had planned to take advantage of being based in Bordeaux to work on wine, but that was before she gained expertise in a different subject: protest.

Williams was one of thousands of foreign students caught up in strikes and demonstrations over government reforms that have paralyzed dozens of universities for four months, giving the outsiders an unexpected glimpse of France's protest culture.

In Bordeaux, where she is spending a year as part of her French and geography course at Plymouth university in Britain, Williams repeatedly commuted 40 minutes to campus only to find barricades made of desks and chairs blocking access.

With grades needed to validate her year of study and months going by with no lectures, Williams found her own way to salvage some academic value out of the chaotic situation.

"I've got to do a cultural project. I was in Bordeaux so I'd thought 'Ah, I'll do wine.' So I'd started collecting tons of stuff on wine, and then I realized actually I have more information on strikes. So now I'm doing strikes," she said.

More than 200,000 foreigners attend France's 83 universities, more than 15 percent of the total student population, according to official statistics.

The protests have primarily affected universities specialized in humanities while economics and science faculties have been largely untouched.

Some university authorities have voiced fears that the strikes, the latest of repeated disruptions in recent years, could put off foreign applicants, depriving France of quality students, international prestige and fees.   Continued...

<p>A French university student sits beneath a banner which reads "Bordeaux III in dispute" during an outdoor class session in the centre of Bordeaux, southwestern France, May 19, 2009. French students continue their 16-week battle against a shake up of the university system. REUTERS/Olivier Pon</p>