April 5, 2018 / 5:26 PM / 14 days ago

France says university exams to take place despite protests

PARIS (Reuters) - End-of year university exams will be held in France despite students blockading some campuses, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said on Thursday as young people joined a wave of demonstrations against proposed economic reforms.

Students sit by stairs near an entrance which is blocked at the University of Nantes as students protest university reform, in Nantes, France, April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

French unions launched three months of rolling work stoppages on Tuesday, crippling rail services, in what is shaping up as the toughest challenge yet to President Emmanuel Macron’s push for liberalisation of the economy.

Students opposing a reform that allows the most pressed universities to select students on merit have blocked three universities and disrupted eight others, the government said.

In the rue de Tolbiac branch of Paris 1 university, students have been blocking access for several days, piling up tables and chairs to control who is coming in, setting up communal kitchen and dormitories and organising non-curriculum classes.

“There is, in these blockages, a lot of violence,” Prime Minister Philippe told France Inter radio. Asked if exams would still take place in good conditions, he replied: “Obviously.”

Currently, students who pass high school exams have the right to go to university in their home area. But this has led to popular subjects such as law and psychology being heavily oversubscribed and prompted the introduction of an unpopular lottery system where demand is highest.

The lottery system would be scrapped under reforms with the most in-demand universities allowed to choose students on merit.

“The government seems to be determined, but so are we,” said Franco-Italian student Cosimo, who declined to give his full name, like all other students interviewed within the premises of the blockaded university, decorated with posters of a “Free Tolbiac” recalling the May 1968 uprising in France.

“Our core demand is that the government scrap the university reform. But we’re also trying to see how to link our battles with others as Macron is targeting a lot of people these days: rail workers, garbage collectors and others.”

Most French university exams are held in late April and May.

It will be worrying for the Macron government if there is any fusion of the various protests springing up in France, including lower-profile disputes over nursing home workers or job losses at the Carrefour supermarket chain.

Students, in particular, have forced past governments into policy u-turns with protracted protests and blockades.

The main student union Fage opposes the blockades and its chief Jimmy Losfeld told French media that some of the student protesters had threatened Fage members.

The University of Grenoble filed a complaint after what it said was theft of materials and damage to university buildings. Other universities affected by the blockages are Montpellier, Toulouse and Nantes.

Reporting by Ingrid Melander and Caroline Pailliez, with additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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