For several days, some major university sites in the French capital have been the scene of violent demonstrations and damage. The demonstrators, mainly high school and university students, intend to challenge the results of the first round of the presidential election.
The mobilisation of high school and university students has become a constant in French presidential elections. In 2002, the announcement of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s arrival in the second round of the election on the evening of April 21st triggered a veritable media storm, which was followed by a large-scale mobilisation in the streets, particularly on the part of secondary school students. Many of them were not old enough to vote, but they had taken to the streets—duly supervised by their teachers, who were no strangers to this “citizen” mobilisation—to demonstrate their opposition to the rise of the “far-right” and “fascism.”
The phenomenon was repeated in 2017, albeit in much smaller proportions.
This year, the mobilisation can still be observed, but with a slightly different content. The “youth”—a small part of them, however—are mobilising against both Macron and Le Pen. They want to show that democracy is not only played out in the ballot box but also in the street, and that they contest the result of the formal elections, in advance.
This protest comes mainly from far-left student associations specialised in street fighting, and also blocking, occupying, and damaging university buildings. Several symbolic places of higher education in Paris were destroyed and damaged, like the Sorbonne, the Institut d’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po), and the EHESS (Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales).
The highly symbolic and historical site of the Sorbonne in the heart of the Latin Quarter was particularly targeted. The jewel of the Sorbonne Chapel, a masterpiece of French classical architecture, was defaced by anarchist tags. Anti-Christian messaging is one of the trademarks of these militants, who did not hesitate to shamefully write “Notre-Dame, c’est nous” (Our-Lady, it’s us!) in the corridors of the university. By claiming to be at the origin of the fire that destroyed the cathedral, they assume a provocative attitude revealing their contempt for the old order.
But that’s not all. The damage is proving to be very heavy. The Sorbonne is a place of study, a place of research, and a conservatory. Rare books have been destroyed, theses and hard disks have been destroyed, laboratories have been ransacked, placing researchers and students in great disarray. The Sorbonne will not be able to reopen by the spring break, and possibly not by the end of the academic year.
According to former vice-chancellor of the universities Édouard Husson, the rectorate has shown guilty indulgence to the protesters. Buildings are normally easy to protect, and a formal process exists to preserve especially the most fragile and valuable historic buildings, such as the Chapel. But during the attacks, the process was clearly not followed. Husson suggests that the oversight was conscious, and part of an attempt to feature Emmanuel Macron as the representative of the party of order, and his opponent, Marine Le Pen, as responsible for such excesses.
Apart from universities, many high schools were also blocked in Paris, and in particular the most prestigious public high schools, such as Louis-Le-Grand, Henri IV or Fénelon, which brings together students from ultra-privileged backgrounds. These students are mobilising to demand “social and climate justice.”
The Panthéon-Assas law university, located in the same district as the Sorbonne, also had to close its doors. The Paris Police Prefecture announced that it was unable to ensure the security of university campuses, as the number of sites to be protected a few days before the second round was too large.
Blockades also took place on the campus of the famous Institut d’Etudes Politiques, or Sciences Po. The right-wing union La Cocarde Étudiante offered to remove the blockades by removing overturned bins and pallets that were blocking access to the buildings, angering the protesters. Activists from Génération Zemmour and the UNI, the main right-wing student union, joined the Cocarde to remove the blockade.
In retaliation, the management of Sciences Po decided to ban a conference organised by the UNI from the school and then announced the opening of an administrative investigation. The UNI union is accused of “claiming to be extreme right-wing” and of having “brutally put an end to the blockade.” The students who allowed the liberation of the buildings are paradoxically condemned by the institution.
Members of the UNI were also beaten by antifa activists in Grenoble. They obtained the support of the Cocarde, but also of the Jeunes Républicains with Guilhem Carayon and Génération Zemmour with Stanislas Rigault.
The violence that multiplied in the period between the two rounds testifies in many ways to the permeability of a fringe of Parisian youth to the militant and violent discourse of far-left activism.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).