How a French student setting himself alight has inspired a new revolt

A 22-year-old’s desperate protest against financial precarity has resonated with students across the country.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Last Friday, around 3pm, Anas K., 22, a student in Lyon, France, set himself alight in front of a university restaurant. He had explained his protest in a Facebook post, describing his precarious financial condition and citing austerity measures and rising unemployment as reasons for his desperate act. 

After losing financial aid for this academic year, Anas found himself struggling to “survive”. His message, shared by student union Solidaires Etudiant.e.s, read: “Even if I had had a scholarship, can anyone live on €450 a month? How long will we have to work and pay taxes to receive a decent pension? Will we even have one amid mass unemployment?” His was a political statement, he said, demanding a “student salary”, more financial aid and better living conditions, not just for students, but for all citizens. “Fight fascism, which is rising and dividing us, fight liberalism which creates inequalities,” he wrote. “I blame Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the EU for my death because their policies made all our futures uncertain. I blame Le Pen, too, and those who aggravate fears.”

Anas is still “between life and death in hospital”, according to the Solidaires union, of which he is a member. He suffered 90 per cent burns to his body. No one had foreseen his act — neither his university, which has said staff “were not aware of his personal struggle” and knew him as a “very involved member of student life”, nor his friends, who have described him as an enthusiastic, caring person who “talked more about everyone else’s problems than his own”. 

But they were aware of his struggle: after failing to complete his year, he had lost eligibility to financial aid, which had made him destitute and forced him to live back home, more than an hour away from Lyon. He was in “an extremely precarious financial situation, desperate and deprived of financial aid,” the union said in a statement, citing “the too common violence and precarity exerted by inhumane institutions, the state and the universities, over students in general indifference” .

This should not be happening in France in 2019. It shouldn’t be happening under president Emmanuel Macron, whose 2017 campaign pledges included “strengthening the university financial aid system, so that students from less well-off families will not be disadvantaged during their studies” and establishing “more progressive, fairer scholarship system.” 

Two and a half years later, these remain unfulfilled. The French government froze financial aid for students back in 2016, when Macron was economy minister. As president, one of his first measures, and an unpopular one at that, was to cut the housing aid known as APL by €5 — a sum which, to people struggling financially, can make a crucial difference, as critics remarked at the time. An annual study by student union Unef found in 2017 that 20 per cent of French students live below the poverty line; this year’s report warned of “rising precarity” among this group, who are “getting poorer quicker than the rest of the population”. About half of French students skip at least one meal a day, the MGEN health insurance found in a study last June.

The French government’s response to the student’s suicide attempt was deemed insufficient by some. When the minister for higher education, Frédérique Vidal, visited the Lyon 2 university on Friday to express her support to staff, student unions lamented that she made little time for them. On Wednesday, following angry student marches and protests the previous day, Vidal released a statement “condemning the violence” — after five days of silence regarding the student’s death. The secretary of state for education and youth, Gabriel Attal, said the event was a tragedy — then added that trying to take one’s own life is “never a political act”.

Meanwhile, Anas’ cry for help has sent waves of pain and rage across French universities. Students took to Twitter to share their experiences of financial struggle with the hashtag #LaPrécaritéTue (#PrecarityKills). Thousands marched in Lyon but also in Marseille, Lille, Paris, Rennes, Clermont-Ferrand, and university towns across France on Tuesday, at rallies organised in support of Anas and his demands. In Lyon, the meeting drew hundreds and “turned into an impromptu protest”, Solidaires union said, with attendees marching to the doors of the local education authority and demanding “concrete measures” (to no avail). In Lille, students who had gathered in support boycotted a planned lecture by former president François Hollande, whom Anas cited in his message.

They shouted: “Hollande, murderer” in the auditorium and destroyed some of his books. In Paris, students assembled near the Sorbonne and marched on the boulevard Saint-Michel — of May 1968 fame — briefly trying to enter the grounds of the ministry for higher education, where they smashed the metal gates open.

The lone act of despair of one destitute young man has resonated with students everywhere. Precarity takes various forms: for the yellow vests last year, the tipping point was fuel prices. In a sign of solidarity between two separate struggles, the crowd at the Lyon march cried: “The struggling youth, the impoverished elderly, we don’t want this society!” They were referring to the government's controversial pension reform, which is sparking social anger and has prompted all major trade unions to plan an “unlimited strike” on 5 December. It’s past time for Macron to deliver his campaign promise to improve the university financial aid system. Indeed, for Anas K., it’s already too late.    

Pauline Bock is a New Statesman contributing writer based in Brussels. She writes about Brexit, the EU, France and the Macron presidency.