If you want to know what the French Yellow Vest Protests are all about, just refer to the arrest of 153 teenage students this month near Paris.
The kids at a high school in Mantes-La-Jolie were forced to kneel down, hands on their heads or secured behind their backs with zip ties as riot police circled them with assault weapons.
Why did law enforcement take such extreme measures? The students had been protesting their government’s education policies.
“What a well-behaved class!” French police commented ironically on a video documenting the arrest on social media by Violences Policières, a watchdog group.
Yes, how well behaved!
Of course! Children should be seen and not heard. Speaking out for yourself is a definite faux pas.
So is detaining minors without a lawyer, which the officers did and which is illegal in France.
But C’est la vie!
Unfortunately such scenes have been repeated throughout the country since November. Despite police opposition, high school students from a number of French schools have joined the Yellow Vests to protest French President Emmanuel Macron’s education policies – inaccurately dubbed “reforms” – among other austerity measures resulting in stagnant wages and a high cost of living.
Macron was elected in 2017 on a neoliberal platform much like that of Barack Obama. And though he was praised for his demeanor, especially in comparison to the boorish Donald Trump, his policies at first met with criticism and then outright protests in the streets.
Citizens took issue with new labor laws, the rail system and taxes. You can’t save the environment by cutting taxes for the wealthy and raising them for the poor to discourage them from driving. You can’t stomp on workers rights in order to create more low-paying jobs.
Protestors repurposed the yellow vests they are required to keep in their cars in case of an emergency into an iconic image of resistance to the gas tax. Hundreds of thousands demanded not just a repeal of Macron’s policies but a new platform to bolster social services and the economy.
The Macron administration has met these demands by at first violently stifling them and then agreeing to individual points before returning to suppression.
Perhaps it is the administration’s insistence that it is beset by violent “hooligans” while most protestors do no more than block traffic that has resulted in a continued rejection of Macron. Protestors even spray-painted a demand that Macron resign on the Arc de Triomphe, the arch on the Champs-Elysées.
Though the American media has mostly ignored the situation, critics blame widespread police brutality including the use of tear gas and clubs for at least four deaths and 700 people wounded in weeks of political challenges that some have compared to the French Revolution.
In particular, students take issue with at least three components of Macron’s plan: (1) changes to the high school graduation exam, (2) changes to college admissions and (3) a new requirement that all students participate in a lengthy volunteer national service project.
First, protestors oppose changes to the end-of-school exams known as baccalaureate or ‘bac.’ Though the proposal includes positive reforms such as reducing the number of exams and providing a longer time frame to take them, it also changes focus from academics to careers.
Much like Common Core did in the United States, the exams would be revised and rewritten. Instead of being tested on broad subjects such as science, literature or social sciences, students would be assessed on much narrower content.
Macron seems to be taking his queue from US philanthrocapitalists like Bill Gates in order to make French students more “college and career ready.”
The new assessments would push students toward specific degrees sooner. Before their final undergraduate year, high school students would have to choose two specific majors and two specific minors alongside the standard curriculum – similar to American colleges.
Students are against this because of what they call “hyper-specialization.” They say these changes would deprive them of exposure to a wide range of disciplines and force them to make life-long choices too early. This would be especially harmful for poor students because, as Liberation editorialist Laurent Joffrin put it, “Those who have more, know more.” In other words, wealthier students would probably be better prepared to navigate the choices open to them than those in poorer areas.
Next, students also want the repeal of stricter selection criteria to universities – a law passed just last year – which they say increases economic inequality between rich and poor schools.
The government provides free college to any student who passes the high school exit exams. However, just like in the US, corporate interests complain that college students struggle with the increased workload and pressures at universities. The new measure solves this by ensuring that fewer students are admitted.
Students say Macron has it backwards. The government shouldn’t be undermining free access to higher education. It should be investing more in the country’s universities and helping students succeed.
Finally, students want to get rid of a mandate that all 16-year-olds will have to participate in a national civic service program scheduled to begin in 2026.
French youths would have to volunteer in fields like defense, environment, tutoring or culture. During the long school breaks, they would have to undergo a one-month placement, consisting of two weeks in collective housing to promote a “social mix,” and then another two weeks in smaller, more “personalized” groups.
The measure doesn’t go as far as Macron wanted. He originally proposed mandatory military service.
Students object to the plan because they say it’s unnecessary and extremely expensive. The program is estimated to cost $1.8 billion ($1.6 billion Euros) with a $1.98 billion ($1.75 Euro) investment up front.
In addition to these demands, some have included limits on class size. Protestors have demanded no more than 25 students per class from nursery school through high school. Low class size ensures each student gets more personal attention from the teacher and a better chance to ask questions and learn.
What we’re seeing in France is extremely important for those living in the US.
It shows that as terrible as the Trump administration is, there are many flavors of bad government. When your representatives are more interested in seeing to corporate whims than the will of the people, chaos can ensue.
Perhaps the US media has been so adverse to reporting on the Yellow Vests because of corporate fear that protests will jump the pond and land on our shores, as well. We have many similar neoliberal and neofascist policies in the US of A, some passed by Republicans and others passed by Democrats.
Here’s hoping that we all can establish legitimate governments that seek to further the ends of liberty, equality and fraternity.
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