Some 43,000 students, researchers and professors took to the streets in Paris and other French cities on Tuesday to demand an increase in scholarship funds and protest government plans to cut university jobs amid the economic downturn.
The protests are the latest of several challenges piling up for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faced nationwide strikes and protests last month by workers who say his government hasn’t done enough to ease the pain of the crisis.
Some 17,000 protesters gathered at the Pantheon on Paris’ Left Bank, police said. Another 26,000 protested in cities from Strasbourg in the east to Toulouse in the Pyrenees and Nantes near the Atlantic, according to police estimates.
The spark for the protests was a new decree on the status of researchers, but they have grown into a forum for frustration at broader government plans to cut costs at government-run universities and schools.
The government minister for higher education, Valerie Pecresse, assigned a mediator to try to calm tensions, and agreed to meet with student unions yesterday. Some unions are refusing to attend the meeting, however, since they want her to withdraw the decree entirely.
The decree gives university presidents more freedom to determine how much time researchers spend researching and how much time teaching. Researchers worry that will lead to a cut into research time and threaten their independence.
Planned job cuts at high schools sparked protests last year and pushed the government to postpone part of the reform plans.
University personnel and student unions in Paris called for more nationwide demonstrations today.
Among other things, the protesters are also angry over some 900 university job cuts and want more government aid to attend universities.
The government says the university reforms are aimed at freeing up universities to allow private sponsors and become more competitive; students say the government is commercializing universities.