Student struggles in France: Faced with poverty, young people are not giving up!

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In the article below we show how, faced with “an accelerated deterioration and precariousness of living conditions”, students in France demonstrated on 21 January 2021, when “hundreds of students took to the streets across France to express their anger and frustration”.

In the UK students have also fought against the same worsening of their living conditions with rent strikes that involved thousands of students at dozens of universities, lasting from October 2020 until February 2021. Besides a rent rebate, at several universities students also demanded a reduction in tuition fees

With regular government guidelines to stay at home over the past year, many students in Britain have found themselves spending less time in student accommodation. But many of them were still expected to pay the full rent on empty rooms.

In this situation students had their backs against the wall. So they decided to take action and started to collectively organise to withhold their rent from universities. After an initial rejection, the spontaneous initiatives of the first rent strikes were then ‘taken over’ by the student unions. Others seem to have been organised by self-appointed leftist committees.

The most combative example was set “by the rent strikes in Bristol and Manchester. These strikes, both large and militant in character, have shown students not only that it is possible to organise a rent strike, but that it is only through collective, militant action that students can win against the marketised university”. (Matthew, Lee Rent Strike Reflections).

The demands put forward by striking students in Manchester in October-November revealed broader concerns, as their demands were not limited to rent alone, but also included other issues such as flooding, rat infestations and lack of access to facilities due to lockdown.

And confronted with “regularly stopped face-to-face classes in universities, leaving students with no other perspective than a face-to-face meeting with a computer screen”, the Manchester students also expressed their grievances against the lack of support for students during isolation and the cancelling of the face-to-face teaching.

Unlike the protest in France, which showed tendencies to question present capitalist society, the rent strikes in the UK were limited to students' specific concerns, but were not of a lesser importance. Firmly anchored on the terrain of the defence of immediate living conditions, it shows the way to the working class as a whole.

The movement in the UK, the biggest wave of university rent strikes in four decades, revealed that the situation of students in Europe is not limited to France. Students in the UK experience the same conditions and, as we have seen in the past few months, are determined to fight for descent living conditions and the right to study with dignity”.

WR 23/3/21

On 21 January, hundreds of students took to the streets across France to express their anger and frustration. For a year now, in an attempt to cope with the pandemic, the government has regularly stopped face-to-face classes in universities, leaving students with no other prospect than virtual meetings in front of a computer screen. President Macron may have said that a lockdown only for the old and the young was out of the question, but this is one of the main thrusts of French government policy for managing the pandemic. As a result, courses are limited to online meetings for the lucky ones or just reading pdf files for the rest. As for lecturers on sick leave, they are not replaced and students have to try on their own to find the content of their courses on the internet. In addition to this isolation, financial insecurity makes young people among the first victims of increasing poverty. In normal circumstances 40% of students work to try and pay their bills... but student jobs have all but disappeared, leaving a large number of them struggling to make ends meet. 75% of students say they have financial difficulties. Many can no longer afford to pay their rent or even to feed themselves after the middle of the month, which has led to a growing number of students being reduced to using "soup kitchens" and resorting to "food banks".

The few crumbs distributed by the Macron government to pacify people will not change anything. A health voucher to go and see a psychologist?... There's typically only 1 for every 30,000 students on campus! Two meals at a euro per day?... This has led some university restaurants to drastically reduce the portions and quality of meals!

Less money, almost no social life, no prospects, this is the fate that society is "offering" to the younger generation: "One young person in six has stopped studying, 30% has given up access to healthcare, and more than half are worried about their mental health"[1]. Psychological problems have escalated, affecting 30% of students compared to 20% four years ago.[2] The extreme isolation, linked to the pandemic and the atomisation of capitalist society, seems to be affecting a whole generation. Faced with such an unbearable situation, suicide attempts have multiplied in recent months[3], a further sign of despair and the absence of a future among an increasing minority of the population.

"Between fatigue, limbo, anger and loneliness, what do we do?"[4]

If students see themselves as "an abandoned generation", they are not ready to give up and let themselves be trampled by putrefying capitalism. "The life of a student should not end in the cemetery!”[5].

Thus, despite the health risk, the most combative have taken to the streets to denounce their living conditions but also on behalf of those who remain isolated: "that's also why we're here, to speak out for the others", said a student on a demonstration[6].

But the student malaise has existed for years, even decades. Already, in 2017, 20% of students were living below the poverty line and 46% were working for a living. These are telling statistics; students' cost of living has been rising steadily since 2009[7]. In September 2019, as a personification of this endless degradation, a student set himself on fire in front of the CROUS[8] of the University of Lyon. He accompanied his gesture with a message on Facebook in which he denounced the conditions of student life and "the policies carried out for several years" by the various fractions of the bourgeoisie in power, "Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy in particular".[9] In response, students took to the streets to demand the right to study with dignity: "Precariousness kills!" "Decent living conditions for all students"[10], you could already read in the period before Covid.

Today, if the pandemic has certainly reinforced isolation and atomisation, it has only been a catalyst for the continuous deterioration of student living conditions, not only in France but throughout the European Union and in Britain, where an accelerated deterioration and precariousness of living conditions is widespread.[11] A proportion of the new generation of proletarians is suffering. Anger is not only directed against the harmful effects of the Covid crisis such as atomisation and the lockdown imposed by the state. As we could see in the demonstrations, the concerns remained much broader: "students in revolt: against the state and precariousness", "students: isolating us is their weapon, solidarity was, is, and will be our response", "at school, at university, at the factory and everywhere, let's fight precariousness and poverty".[12] Behind these demands, there is an underlying theme: How to fight against this society? How can we imagine a different future?

The student demonstrations of this January in France are in line with the struggles of autumn 2019 and winter 2020. Although initially stunned and unable to react to the outbreak of the pandemic, the will to fight has not been totally broken, nor the ability to struggle together, to discuss and to exchange points of view, even if the path to the development of more massive struggles is still long.

These struggles have been very short-lived because of the health situation and the capacity of the bourgeoisie to defuse actions very quickly by dismissing the "fear" of a new lockdown and by the work of division of the unions. The latter did everything possible to prevent the participation of students in the interprofessional day of action of 6 February by organising alternative rallies and isolated and sterile general assemblies inside the universities themselves or by putting forward slogans such as "forgotten youth: we won't pay for the crisis"!

However, despite these attempts to portray young people as being "sacrificed for the health of the elderly", students aren't swallowing these stories. "70% of 18-30 year olds think that it is shocking to say that their generation has been sacrificed to save the elderly".[13]

No: there is no conflict of interest between generations of the same class! It is in solidarity and from the lessons of past struggles that young proletarians must draw their strength. Capitalism has nothing to offer to any proletarian generation. The slogan coined during the movement against the First Employment Contract (CPE) in 2006 remains fully relevant: "Young bacon, old croutons, all part of the same salad"[14].

Élise, 18 February 2021


[1] “Covid-19 en France : les étudiants en détresse”, France 24 (26 January 2021).

[2] Le Journal du dimanche (27 January 2021).

[3] “La crise sanitaire pèse sur la santé mentale des étudiants”, Le Monde (28 December 2020).

[4]  “Entre la fatigue, le flou, la colère et la solitude, on fait quoi ?”, Le Monde (21 January 2021).

[5] “On se sent abandonnés” : face à la crise sanitaire, des étudiants manifestent leur détresse”, Le Parisien (20 January 2021).

[6] Ibid.

[7] “Précarité : près de 20 % des étudiants vivent en dessous du seuil de pauvreté”, Le Monde (14 November 2019).

[8] Centre régional des oeuvres universitaires et scolaires. (Regional Students Welfare Office)

[9] “Que disent les chiffres sur la précarité étudiante ?”, Le Journal du Dimanche (13 November 2019).

[10] Ibid.

[11] In Germany, for example, 40% of students reported in 2019 (before Covid) that they had great financial difficulties, while in London, where university fees are exorbitant, it is almost impossible to find affordable accommodation.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Coronavirus : 81 % des 18-30 ne se reconnaissent pas dans l’appellation génération Covid”, 20 minutes (10 June 2020).

[14] In 2006, students and young workers, who were fighting against the CPE, were joined and supported by all generations of proletarians.


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