The occupation of the University of Bordeaux’s (UB) Victoire campus began with small-scale lecture hall occupations during the first week of March. After the administration refused to follow the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne in rejecting a new, selective admissions process called the ORE proposed by French President Emmanuel Macron’s government, the UB students took over the Girac lecture hall, intending to remain there until the university administration considered their demands.
On March 6, UB President Manuel Tunon de Lara ordered the police to forcibly remove students from the lecture hall. Bordeaux caisse ta sélection, a student-run Facebook page opposing the new law and seeking to inform students about the occupation and protests, explains that at approximately 8:00 p.m. police dismantled student barricades and began removing students “with extreme violence,” using sexist, racist, and homophobic insults and resorting to physical violence. One student was hospitalized as a result of the injuries he sustained and later placed in police custody.
“There will be thousands of students who will find themselves without a place at the start of the school year. You’re used to the selection process in the U.S. We are not.”
On March 15, a group of students announced a continuous occupation of the Victoire campus. All campus access routes were barricaded using chairs and tables, while the main doors remained open for anyone to come in, observe the occupation, participate in discussions, or simply wander the halls. “Decree Prohibiting Access to the Premises of the University of Bordeaux,” a March 29 university order signed by Tunon de Lara, was posted on multiple building doors, prohibiting access to the Victoire campus due to security concerns. It cited the “irregular occupation of the Victoire site by a group of individuals” and the administration’s resulting inability to assure “sufficient security of the property and persons (notably personnel and students)” as the reason for the closure.
Nathan Dartiguelongue, a Master’s student studying history and geography at the University of Bordeaux-Montaigne, told the Caravel that he has been mobilizing his classmates to take action against the ORE law since October 2017, long before the March occupation started. When a group of students decided to occupy the Victoire campus building following the March 6 clash with police, Dartiguelongue acted as one of the chief organizers.
Dartiguelongue described the atmosphere in the occupied building as one of engaging intellectual discussion. “We met up to discuss different actions that we were going to organize in town [such as]the demonstrations….[but]we also discussed the law, we discussed other reforms that affect the public sector.”
Students and faculty members who supported the occupation held debates, workshops, and conferences on various topics to make up for the temporary suspension of all university activity on campus. For example, Dartiguelongue recalled, a faculty member held a conference on the history of the May 1968 protest movement.
“There were dormitories for people [to sleep in], to occupy the university and to sustain [the occupation],” Dartiguelongue said. To him, keeping the university building in good condition throughout the occupation was a notable success because it is an important site, rich in Bordeaux’s artistic and cultural heritage.
In a letter posted on the Bordeaux casse ta sélection Facebook page on April 4, the organizers outlined the chief aims of their occupation. They demanded the resignation of Tunon de Lara, who was responsible for the decision to call in police on March 6, and a vote for the non-application of the ORE selection rules at UB. Given the uncertainty surrounding the length of the occupation, they also asked that second-semester exams be cancelled for students at the affected campus and that all students receive a grade of 15 or above (on a 20-point scale) so as not be “penalized” for the ensuing occupation. “Long Live the Free University!” became a rallying cry during the occupation, appearing on all electronic and paper communications disseminated by the occupiers and featuring on posters and in Facebook posts.
To Dartiguelongue, the occupation was ultimately about preserving the French students’ right to higher education.
“There will be thousands of students who will find themselves without a place at the start of the school year. You’re used to the selection process in the U.S. We are not,” Dartiguelongue explained. “The Bac offers us…the right to access the university [system], whatever our Bac results may be….[Now] we have about 600,000 spots in the higher education system, and there are approximately 800,000 Bac holders.”
According to the French Ministry of Education, there were 647,700 students who took the Bac exam in 2017. Grégory Champeaud, a professor at Sciences Po Bordeaux and a history and geography teacher at the Fernand Deguin School in Merignac, attributed high drop-out rates in part to the failure of the secondary education system to adequately prepare students for university.
“If you look at the former system, students who were not prepared at all to go to university could go to university. So, that’s great for them,” Champeaud said. “But usually, 95 percent of them, after two months at university, they stopped because they discovered in a way that they were not prepared for that.”
Dartiguelongue and other student occupiers disagree with the government’s current solution to university overcrowding and advocate for increasing the number of places at universities rather than increasing selectivity.
“The [government’s] argument is to say that there were majors that didn’t have enough spots, there were majors that already had a form of selection—but a randomized one,” Dartiguelongue said. “So, we eliminate the draw system, and we create a more just, merit-based one. Except that…they eliminated the draw system for two percent of all university majors because it was only two percent of the majors that were concerned, and they have generalized the selection process for all the ones that were not affected [by overcrowding].”
The French university system requires students to apply to a particular department, rather than the school at large, thus locking the student into a specific major with no opportunity to transfer departments. Thus, it is only students seeking to enter particular fields of study who have experienced overcrowding in the past, notably those who complete the Physical and Sports Sciences Bac.
The UB occupation officially came to an end on April 29, with an announcement posted on the Bordeaux Students In Solidarity (Solidaires Etudiant-e-s Bordeaux) Facebook page.
“Tonight, we leave the university. We leave here, but [it is]to better occupy the streets, along with the other sectors fighting [against government policies]from the 1st of May. We believe that it is now essential to put our forces wherever it is possible to extend the frontlines of the social war that is taking place today, concerning the destruction of public services (SNCF [French National Railway Corporation], Health, Postal Service), the evacuation of the [occupation zones]…and the reception of refugees and migrants fleeing wars and misery.”
When asked if the occupation affected him in any way, Champeaud confessed that it did not and that he was only aware of it through the news he was reading.
“I heard former students complaining that they could not go to university, they could not take their exams. So, that affected them, of course,” he said. “[The occupation] annoys the teachers, it annoys the administration, but I’m not even sure it annoys the government. I’m not sure it’s very efficient.”
According to Dartiguelongue, however, the occupation was not futile, despite its failure to secure the resignation of Tunon de Lara or the rejection of ORE provisions by the university administration.
“[The media in France] all say the same thing…and they had to talk about us because we occupied the university…. They had to talk about us, and we don’t yet know how much weight that will have,” Dartiguelongue said.
“It’s not over,” he concluded, remembering the ongoing university occupations in Toulouse and Rennes. The occupied university in Toulouse has since been evacuated by police on the morning of May 9. But even as remaining student occupiers in Rennes and elsewhere wait for the impending evacuations, student activists continue to organize against the new policy in different ways. Demonstrations and rallies against ORE, as well as against Macron’s attempted privatization of the public transport sector, are still taking place throughout France on a nearly weekly basis.
Champeaud, on the other hand, is less optimistic about the impact of the occupations and general student resistance on ORE’s implementation.
“At least for the moment, the law will stay,” he said. “[You have] to look at the results, in August, of the selection process because we are not sure that it’s going to work very well. That’s where everything is going to be decided in a way.”
This article is part two of a two-part Caravel series about French education reforms and ongoing student protests. Part One, which features a conversation with a Sciences Po Bordeaux professor about the new reforms, can be found here.