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French universities in chaos over Sarkozy reforms

world Updated: Apr 08, 2009 22:46 IST
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Hundreds of French students built a barricade in central Paris on Wednesday, seeking to raise pressure on President Nicolas Sarkozy in the 10th week of nationwide protests against his university reform plans.

Lecturers and students have been on strike across France to demand the withdrawal of three government reforms they say will hike the cost of studying and lower the quality of teaching.

Sarkozy says the reforms will energise universities and improve graduates' chances on the job market. After watering down one of the reforms to address strikers' concerns, the government says it will budge no further.

The deadlock has left universities in chaos, with no lectures taking place, buildings blocked by piles of desks and chairs and uncertainty over whether June exams will go ahead.

Two rectors at universities in Orleans and Rennes were held hostage briefly by students in separate incidents this week.
"I'm worried about not having lectures or exams but we have to fight for a just cause," said literature student Selin Cay.

At the Sorbonne, birthplace of the May 1968 student uprising that escalated into a general strike, students have staged a series of colourful street events including a mock Inquisition "trial of Nicolas Sarkozy" in full medieval fancy dress.

On Wednesday, they used shopping trolleys and rubbish bins covered in sand to build a "beach barricade", stopping traffic on two major roads in the heart of the Latin Quarter -- much to the delight of passing tourists who whipped their cameras out.

"We had heard the French were always protesting so they're confirming it for us," said Venezuelan visitor Martin Fernandes.

The impromptu barricade caught police by surprise and they made no immediate attempt to clear the road. Students then drifted away to a larger demonstration elsewhere in Paris.

French state universities are almost free and are accessible to most school-leavers. But the system has become creaky over the decades, with overcrowded lectures and degrees so common they mean little to employers.

Sarkozy has complained in the past about what he sees as resistance to change in the education system -- a charge that infuriates lecturers and students.

"Everyone in the university community agrees that reforms are necessary, but they should not be imposed on us without consultation as this government has done," said Marie Salgues, a lecturer in Spanish at Paris 8 university.

She was taking part in the "Infinite Circle of the Obstinate", a round-the-clock circular protest march that has been taking place without interruption since March 23 in front of Paris City Hall thanks to a constant relay of participants.

The difficulty now is to find a way out of the crisis.

"There is still time to catch up on lectures and hold exams," Valerie Pecresse, the minister in charge of higher education, said on Wednesday, pleading for a return to normal.