Union calls for nationwide demonstrations follow Anas K gesture on poverty
Demonstrations have taken place across French cities in solidarity with a 22-year-old who set himself alight to highlight student poverty.
Unrest erupted at universities after the undergraduate, named only as Anas K, set himself on fire in the city of Lyon on Friday to highlight his financial difficulties and protest at the education policies of Emmanuel Macron.
The political science student suffered 90% burns and was said to be in a critical condition in hospital.
Student protesters also forced the former French president François Hollande to cancel a university conference in Lille.
On Tuesday afternoon, Hollande, who led the French socialist government from 2012-17, had prepared to give his lecture at Lille University entitled Responding to the democratic crisis. A group of about 50 students forced their way into the Lille amphitheatre where they tore up copies of the former leader’s book of the same title. Hollande, who was in another room, left without seeing the demonstration.
The protesters brandished a banner, reading “solidarity and long live socialism”, and chanted “anti-capitalism” and “Hollande assassin”. Several videos posted on Facebook showed students, some with scarves covering their faces, throwing ripped books across the room and jostling with security guards.
On Wednesday Hollande issued a statement saying he understood that “legitimate” emotions were running high but regretted that “feelings turned into violence … leaving no place for dialogue”. He said the protest had robbed more than 1,000 students of the chance to discuss democracy with him at the event.
Students said the action was a response to Anas K’s “desperate gesture”, which symbolised the financial and future insecurity faced by youngsters in France.
Before dousing himself with petrol and setting himself on fire Anas K posted a Facebook message outlining his financial problems and said he was choosing to set himself alight outside the building that housed the regional student aid centre. It was, he wrote, a “political target … representing the education ministry and, therefore, the entire government”.
He wrote: “This year I am doing the second year of my bachelor’s degree for the third time. I have no grant. Even when I had one, I received €450 a month. How can one live on that? And after our studies how long will we have to work to pay our social charges to have a decent pension?”
He concluded by blaming France’s last three presidents and the far-right leader Marine Le Pen for his situation. “I accuse Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the EU of killing me by creating uncertainty for the future of everyone … my last wish is also that my colleagues continue the fight to put an end once and for all to this.”
Government figures for 2015 showed more than a third of students received some kind of financial help from the state, but in 2017 the National Students Union of France (UNEF) estimated that almost 20% of students were living below the poverty line.
The Lyon branch of the student union Solidaires, of which Anas K was a member, called for nationwide demonstrations in support of him and described his setting fire to himself as a “deeply political, desperate act” aimed at a “fascist and racist system that breaks people”.
Students at Lyon 2 University voted to block their campus. They set up obstacles including rubbish bins across the entrances forcing lectures to be cancelled on Wednesday.
At the higher education ministry building in Paris, several dozen protesters forced open the gates and occupied the courtyard on Tuesday night, calling for the higher education minister, Frédérique Vidal, to resign. They left when police arrived. The words la precarité tue (hardship kills) were written on the ministry wall. Vidal told journalists: “Violence has no place in a university.”