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The position of French Student Union is at the forefront of Change

The position of French Student Union is at the forefront of Change

PARIS – A powerful government minister recently condemned the activities as an organization that is racist and could lead to “fascism”. MPs accused him of promoting “separatism” and joining “Islamist leftism” before calling for its dissolution.

Unef, a 114-year-old French university student union, has a long history of drawing the wrath of the political establishment – especially in the years when it declared independence from the country’s most important colony (Algeria) or took to the streets. against employment contracts for young people.

But the recent harsh attacks were something that resonated just as much as in a France struggling to adapt to social change: limiting some meetings to racial minorities to discuss discrimination.

In recent days, the controversy surrounding Unef – the French acronym for the French National Students ’Union – has spread in a third week, along with more explosive debates across the country.

Thursday, Senate accepted prohibit the group that organizes limited meetings and others, attached a “Unef Amendment” To President Emmanuel Macron the law against Islamism, a political ideology that accuses the government of inciting recent terrorist attacks. The National Assembly, which is under the control of Mr Macron’s party, has yet to ratify the bill, believing it to be one of the defining pieces of legislation for his presidency.

At the same time, before the regional elections came, the campaign was turned upside down when Audrey Pulvar, the black deputy mayor of Paris and high-ranking candidate, received widespread condemnation after defending the limited meetings.

Student union leaders advocate the use of “safe space” forums, saying they have led to a strong and frank dialogue; critics say it is racism against white exclusion and a betrayal of the French universalist tradition inspired by the United States.

According to her critics, Unef is an embodiment of the threat posed by US universities: it imports ideas that fundamentally question the relationship between women and men, questions France’s racial and racial role, and disturbs society’s hierarchies of power.

Undoubtedly, in recent years the union has undergone a rapid and profound transformation in a country that has rarely been seen, where institutions tend to be deeply conservative and some, such as French Academy or literary awards juries, are structured in ways that drown out change.

The transformation of the Union has reflected many changes among young people in France with gender, race, sexual orientation and, as recently, a much calmer attitude. surveys they have shown, religions and the strict secularism of France, known as laïcité.

Unef’s changes – some hope and others fear – herald greater social change.

“We scare people because we represent the future,” said Mélanie Luce, 24, president of Unef and daughter of a black woman in Guadeloupe and a Jewish man in southern France.

In an organization dominated by whites until a few years ago, Unef’s current management shows the diversity that is rarely seen in France. Mrs. Luce is her fifth female president and the first non-white. His other four top leaders include two white men, a woman whose parents converted to Islam and a Muslim man whose parents were immigrants from Tunisia.

“Unef is a microcosm that reveals social debates,” said former president Lilâ Le Bas. In France this debate has started to start seriously as issues like discrimination, he said, “and that’s why it creates so much tension and pressure.”

Like other student unions, Unef works with government grants, about $ 540,000 a year. Among his tasks, he deals with the living conditions of students, for example, he has recently organized food banks for students affected by the coronavirus epidemic.

But his increasingly broad social stance has drawn criticism in the political establishment, in conservative media, and even in some members of the past.

In interviews with current and more than eleven former leaders of Unef, including the seven presidents of the last 20 years, they too were not uniformly comfortable with Unef’s recent stances, as the fight against discrimination has placed him at the core of his mission.

Critics say his new approach has led to a decline in union influence and membership – it was once the largest, but is now the second largest in France. Proponents say that unlike many left-wing organizations fighting in France, the union has a clear new vision.

In 2019, in a protest against Blackface, Unef leaders helped Esquylo perform a play at the Sorbonne to show that white actors are wearing masks and dark makeup, accused of violating freedom of expression.

Recently, local officials in Grenoble posted anonymous Islamic campuses on social media, including the names of two teachers accused of Islamophobia; Ms Luce later said it was a mistake, but many politicians branded it as evidence of Unef’s “Islamic leftism” or sympathy for Islam.

The attacks rose to a new level last month after Ms. Luce was challenged on a radio conversation About Unef’s practice of holding meetings limited to racial minorities.

A decade ago, Unef leaders began holding meetings exclusively for women, where members spoke for the first time about sexism and sexual harassment in the organization. Discussions have spread to internal forms of racism and other forms of discrimination.

Ms. Luce explained to her radio show that no decision was made at the limited meetings, instead women and racial minorities were used to share common experiences of discrimination. But the conversation caused a flood of sexist and racist deaths threats.

On the following radio conversation On his own, National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer agreed with calling the host meetings limited to racism.

“People who claim to be progressive and who say they are progressive are people who are distinguished by their skin color lead us to things that resemble fascism,” Mr. Blanquer said.

Mr. Blanquer has pushed the government for a wider push against what he and conservative intellectuals describe as a threat Progressive ideas in America about race, gender, and postcolonialism.

French cultural wars have heated up as Mr. Macron shifts to the right a challenge that comes from the far right before next year’s election. His government recently announced that this would be the case research universities the tendency to “corrupt Islamists” to “corrupt society”.

Now, even relatively obscure social terms like “intersectionality” (analysis of multiple forms of discrimination and reinforcements) are causing severe attacks by politicians.

“There is a struggle to fight against the intellectual matrix that comes from American universities and the established intersectional theories in the essentialization of communities and identities,” Mr. Blanquer said. conversation with a French newspaper.

Mr. Blanquer declined requests for an interview, as did Minister of Higher Education Frédérique Vidal.

Aurore Bergé, a member of parliament for Mr Macron’s party, said Unef’s actions affect identity politics, instead of uniting people in a common cause, excluding “all those who suffer discrimination”.

“We will throw out the others as if they don’t have the right to express themselves,” said Ms. Bergé, an amendment she recently introduced unsuccessfully that would prevent Muslims from putting the veil on the public.

According to current UNEF leaders, they are fighting for discrimination in favor of freedom, equality and human rights in France.

The latest attacks are seen as a backward move by an establishment that does not renounce discrimination rooted in France, unable to keep up with the growing diversity of its society and marking the universality of silencing new ideas and voices for fear. .

“In our society, in the country of the Enlightenment, it is a problem that we limit ourselves to talking about certain issues,” said Majdi Chaarana, treasurer of Unef and son of Tunisian immigrants.

As the student union spoke more boldly, the impact of Unef, like other left-wing organizations — including the Socialist Party, a longtime ally and the unions — has diminished, said student expert Julie Le Mazier. unions at the European Center for Sociology and Political Science.

“It’s a big crisis, but it’s not at all accurate for Unef,” he said.

Bruno Julliard led the union when he forced President Jacques Chirac to leave a contest youth employment contract 2006an. Back then, the union was more concerned with issues like enrollment and access to jobs, said Mr. Julliard, the union’s first gay president.

Mr Julliard said the limited meetings held by the union and the opposition to the play by Aeschylus had left him uncomfortable, but today young people are “much more sensitive, in a good sense of the word”, with all sorts of discrimination.

“Every generation needs to let their struggles be directed and respect the way they do it, even if that doesn’t stop me from having an opinion,” he said.

Former President William Martinet said gender mainstreaming eventually led to the study of racism. While Unef’s main leaders were economically comfortable whites in France’s “big schools” or prestigious universities, many of its activists were non-working class, immigrant, and non-white.

“After wearing glasses that allow you to see discrimination, in fact, a lot of people appear in front of you,” Mr. Martinet said.

Once started, the change happened quickly. More women became leaders. Abdoulaye Diarra, who became Unefen’s first black vice president in 2017, hired a woman dressed as a hijab whose parents had converted to Islam. Maryam Pougetoux, now one of the two vice presidents of the union.

“I don’t think if I had arrived 10 years earlier, I would have been as welcome as I was in 2017,” Ms. Pougetoux said.

But the reception was different from the outside.

Last fall, when Ms. Pougetoux dressed as a hijab appeared at the National Assembly to testify about the impact of the Covid epidemic on students, four lawmakers, including one from Mr. Macron’s party, came out in protest.

The clothing of the Muslim veil has been promoting divisions in France for more than a generation. For Unef, however, the problem was solved.

Her leaders had long considered the veil a symbol of the oppression of women. Now they only saw it as an option left by women.

“Defending the status of women really,” said other vice president Adrien Liénard, “gives them the right to do whatever they want.”

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