May 19, 2009 / 9:35 AM / 10 years ago

A lesson in protest for foreign students in France

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.

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

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.


American Jasper Lipton and Bulgarian Dena Popova, both from Whitman College in the U.S. state of Washington, were hoping to study at the Sorbonne in Paris but the shutdown there forced them to fall back on classes at private institutions instead.

“I was lucky that I could take some classes at a different university. I had friends in other cities who ended up not taking any classes at all anywhere because of schools on strike,” said Lipton, who is majoring in French and English.

“There are ingrained cultural factors. The French have a propensity toward social activism. Selfishly, in terms of me going to Paris and not being able to attend the classes that I wanted to attend, it was frustrating,” he said.

Popova, a film studies and politics student, said her course was covered by a grant, but others were not so fortunate.

“For me it was OK because it’s not me or my parents paying, but some of the Americans were complaining because it’s quite expensive and they didn’t get what they wanted,” she said.

French university students attend an outdoor class session in front the city hall of Bordeaux, southwestern France, May 19, 2009. The placard reads "Bordeaux III university resists against these reforms. Spanish university department, today: literature and translation". REUTERS/Olivier Pon

American Lindsay Cook, a French and art history major from Vassar College in New York State, attended strikers’ assemblies at the Sorbonne to try and understand what it was all about.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” she said, though she would have preferred a normal art history course.

“The few classes that I did have were excellent so it’s a shame they weren’t teaching me the whole time. But it’s not their fault. They clearly see problems with the system and this is the way that you fix it in France,” she said.

Editing by Dominic Evans

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