‘We’re infantilised or demonised’: French students criticise Gaza protests crackdown

3 May 2024 // The Guardian

Jack, 22, a student in public administration, was dragged out of his university building by the arms and legs on Friday, as police forcibly removed several dozen students who had been occupying Paris’s Sciences Po university overnight in a protest against civilian deaths in Gaza.

“We’ll keep going,” said the French-American student in his final year at the prestigious political science school, whose alumni include the president, Emmanuel Macron. “This is about speaking out against a genocide, it’s an international movement. We occupied the building peacefully.”

Sciences Po has become the focal point of French student protests over the war in Gaza and academic ties with Israel. The protests, much smaller in scale than those seen in the US, began at elite political science faculties, but have spread to other universities in recent days.

“I simply don’t want my government to be complicit in this genocide in my name,” said Jack, who slept in his clothes on a Sciences Po lecture hall floor on Thursday, having spent the evening with dozens of others holding discussion groups while also revising for exams next week.

About 10 Sciences Po students began a hunger strike in protest at deaths in Gaza on Thursday. In the smart street on Paris’s Left Bank, Palestinian flags hung from the university windows alongside a banner saying: “Hunger strike for Gaza”, until police moved in to clear the sit-in at the request of university authorities, following the failure of hours of talks. “Those on hunger strike are doing OK, they’re being monitored by doctors and they will keep going,” said Jack, who did not give his surname.

He said it was “lies and entirely wrong” to say there was any antisemitism in the movement, saying it was for peace and against civilian deaths.

The government in France – which is home to the largest Jewish population outside Israel and the US, and to Europe’s largest Muslim population – has said it would be extremely firm and stop any blockades and sit-ins. Some university heads have called in police to clear buildings.

The protests are happening against the backdrop of the European elections, with the government minister for higher education accusing the leftwing party France Unbowed (La France Insoumise) and its leader, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, of stoking the protests for its own electoral gains. The party said the protesting students were the “honour” of France.

Students from several universities gathered to protest outside the Pantheon in Paris on Friday, some of whom had been evicted from sit-ins and occupations.

Mathilde, 18, a first-year student in social and economic administration at Paris University’s Tolbiac faculty, occupied a university courtyard this week before being moved by security guards.

“We’re simply trying to give voice to those facing violence in Gaza; to put the spotlight on a genocide,” she said. “But when we talk about Palestine, there’s repression. We’re infantilised or demonised and we’re not being listened to. This is not pro-Hamas, I’ve never met anyone antisemitic, we just want peace.”

Her parents, from Paris, were broadly supportive, she said. It was her second big demonstration after she took part in protests against Macron’s pension policy changes while still at school.

Hania Hamidi, a student in sociology at Paris University and spokesperson for France’s Unef students’ union, said: “For several weeks, we’ve seen an increase in repression. Police have entered our centres of learning, debates have been held behind closed doors. We’re asking for peace in the world. Universities are a place for debate. And instead we’re seeing a muzzling of youth. There has been too much repression.”

A few streets away, a Jewish students’ union had set up tables near La Sorbonne University to bring together students of all backgrounds to debate.

“This is exactly what I wanted: to be able to talk,” said Yossef, a Jewish final-year journalism student who was engaged in a polite but intense exchange with Mohammed, a French-Moroccan economics PhD student.

“I find it absolutely amazing to be able to stand here and talk, disagree but still talk it out, without being shocked by what the other person is saying, and – crucially – letting the other person finish,” said Mohammed. “We’re lucky that in France we can have these conversations equal to equal.”

Samuel Lejoyeux, the president of the Union of Jewish students and a former student at Sciences Po, said: “If someone mobilises for Palestinian people’s rights, there isn’t a problem with that.”

He said the problem was if the movement became radicalised and created antisemitism. “So what we wanted to do by creating this space of dialogue is to be able to speak about the Israel-Palestine conflict without invective and insults. We’re trying to recreate something positive because we know this conflict generates so much tension.”