It appeared to be total capitulation. In the face of spreading, and ever more violent, demonstrations by students, and the threat of a general strike by the major unions, French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac withdrew his controversial university-reform plan. What Chirac’s government had proposed was hardly draconian: a small rise in tuition fees, more autonomy for the state-run and -supported universities in choosing their students, other relatively minor reforms to debureaucratize an overloaded, overcrowded system.
The students who took to the streets in protest, first in some of the smaller cities and then in Paris, were not spiritual heirs of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and the student revolutionaries whose riots in May 1968 resulted, one year later, in the departure of le grand Charles from French public life. These were thoroughly bourgeois students who were asking only for a better chance at a better life. The lot of the French collegian is hard: The universities from the Sorbonne on down are dingy and rundown, the classrooms overcrowded, the lodgings cold and meager, the student cafeterias–the only place they can afford to eat–miserable. Now the government–they thought–was planning to make things even worse by permitting the brighter among them to be chosen by select universities, which would in consequence become more prestigious, while the general run of state colleges slipped even further down the scale. Graduates of the new elite universities would then have a better shot in the narrow job market. That was the nub of the students’ discontent. There is no Ivy League, no Big Ten among French universities (if you discount the specialized institutions called les grandes ecoles, whose graduates end up running France). And now a conservative government was trying to create one.
So the demonstrations escalated: Barricades went up, rocks were thrown, cars burned. In one police action a student died. The Socialists saw a great opportunity here, and the press and TV screens were soon filled with former Socialist cabinet members–among them Lionel Jospin, Pierre Mauroy, Laurent Fabius–parading shoulder to shoulder with the students down Paris’s broad boulevards. The major unions announced a 24-hour general strike in support of the demonstrators (French unions have brought the 24-hour general strike to a fine art) and Chirac capitulated. He withdrew his entire reform package. It was not worth the looming confrontation, the bad press, the potential explosion. His sights are fixed beyond the daily business of government on a date, still unaanounced, in the spring of 1988–the next presidential election. Sharing the limelight as he does with a Socialist president who retains many powers, Chirac must play the waiting game. It is only when, and if, the center-Right runs both the Elysee and the Matignon that Chirac can get down to the real business of reforming France. Meanwhile, let the students return to their classrooms before any further damage is done.