C'est quoi la grève?

First of all, go watch this. (Here's the more-or-less comprehensible Google Translated version.) I heard it referenced many times here before actually hearing it play on the radio. Musical quality? Mediocre at best. But pretty hilarious because, well, so true.

Last semester's blogging was principally preoccupied with food. This semester, if I weren't too lazy to blog, it would all be about la grève. The word "strike" in English just doesn't carry the same weight of cultural connotations that grève seems to here. I can't count how many times since this strike started that people have told me striking is the national sport of the French. I have no trouble believing it. By all accounts, it's striking season - each year the revendications (demands, assertions, "this is what we're striking about") change, but come the third or fourth week of the spring semester and the striking begins. This turned out to be very accurate; most of my classes only met two or three times before being shut down by the strike.

It started, if I remember correctly, in the middle of my literature class - some of the students had held a general assembly that morning, and that afternoon the fire alarm went off during class. I didn't connect the two events until after we'd been shivering outside for half an hour and someone had got up on the steps to make a speech that I didn't entirely comprehend. It clicked when about half the students walked away in the direction of the bus stop rather than back to class, although my professor obstinately went back inside and finished her lecture through the continuing noise of the fire alarm.

It took about a week for all my classes to get shut down by the strike; classes in Letters and Languages went almost immediately, since its students were largely the instigators of the strike, as far as I can tell. Kinder observers will say that the liberal arts students are very socially conscious; most people will just call them anarchists. Whatever the case may be, they're a lot more invested in this than any of the other departments, and it's largely their fault that other faculties got shut down, since Letters and Languages students would go and "occupy" classes in other departments to dissuade them from taking place. In any case, it's been a full month since I've had a normal class week, though one math class obstinately continues to meet, even with only half its students, and the other has had fits and starts of trying to get back off the ground. At various times, both Letters and Languages and Mathematics have officially suspended classes for up to a week at a time, since even the professors had stopped showing up. I guess if they officially cancel classes it makes it administratively easier to make them up later.

At this point you're probably wondering what exactly they're striking about. Yeah, me too. As far as I can discern, there are three main reforms the government is trying to pass that people don't seem happy about. One has to do with the status of professor-researchers, and giving universities more power to evaluate them and establish how much teaching and how much research a given individual does. Another has to do with the way you become a teacher; currently you pass a competitive exam and go through a formation that's independent of the public university system, but the reform would make a teaching degree a master's program like other university degrees. The third has to do with how universities are funded; currently the government pays for pretty much everything and students pay a nominal enrollment fee, but some people want to let universities accept funding from private corporations.

My big questions, when I figured out that these were the issues, were: why are the students striking, when it seems like these reforms principally affect teachers and administrators? And how, as a student, do you even go on strike anyway? The rhetoric is pretty predictable. A lot of words like "solidarity" and "this is our future" and "corruption of the educational system." Everywhere you look are banners that say "university in danger." Here, education is free for students, which means that it's regarded as a right rather than a privilege. It's also extremely standardized, because if it's a right then everyone should have the same rights. Thus the resistance to evaluations of professor-researchers that would differentiate among them, privileging some, and the resistance to private funding, which might mean some universities or areas of study would be privileged over others. Basically, privilege is a dirty word here.

It all comes down to the free education system (which can apparently be traced back to a decision by the Catholic church, according to last semester's history class), which means that on the one hand, the government pays for everything, a system that may or may not be sustainable in the modern world (and especially the current economic climate), leading them to look for alternative sources of funding (though we'd never talk of actually asking the students to pay); and on the other hand, it creates a system where students can go on strike to protest such reforms, an idea that seems laughable to those of us who pay for our education. I would really love to tell a French student how much money I would have lost in the past four weeks if I'd stopped going to classes, just to see their jaw drop. Here, the worst that can happen is that they'd lose this semester, and since they're not paying anyway, it's much less of a big deal than it would be back in the U.S. - they can always repeat. Even so, since the students haven't been going to classes, the professors haven't been giving classes, bringing the university to a grinding halt and obliging it, by law, to make up the missed classes whenever the strike ends. Many of the professors I've talked to don't actually agree with the cessation of classes, even if they're against the reforms, but their position is "if the students don't want to have class, we won't have class." But they'll still make up the missed classes later. It boggles the mind, how docile they are. To all appearances, the students run this university.

We're now into week five and Middlebury has set up some replacement classes and tutorials for us, though in theory we're still supposed to be doing independent work for our "real" classes. Everything is fuzzy; we have no end date for the semester, since it may well be prolonged due to make-up classes; many of us still have no plane ticket home. It's certainly a point of cultural divergence with the American system, and not one I approve of nearly as much as the food...