French govt under pressure after student sets himself on fire

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LYON, France — The French government on Wednesday attempted to defuse the anger caused by the attempted suicide of a student who set himself alight to protest the hardships of his university life.

The 22-year-old student suffered burns on 90 percent of his body after attempting to take his life outside a university building in Lyon in southeast France last Friday.

The man, who had recently lost his student grant and whose identity was withheld for privacy reasons, remains in serious condition in hospital.

President Emmanuel Macron deplored the student's "tragic" gesture at a cabinet meeting Wednesday and expressed his "empathy and compassion", government spokeswoman Sibeth Ndiaye said.

But Ndiaye said "nothing" could justify the acts of vandalism committed during protests triggered by the man's self-immolation, which he blamed in a Facebook post on the policies pursued by France's leaders.

On Tuesday, several hundred students demonstrated in Lyon, Lille, Bordeaux and Paris, where protesters tore down the gate of the higher education ministry and scrawled "financial insecurity kills" on the wall.

At the University of Lille, a conference by former president Francois Hollande had to be called off while at Lyon 2 University, where the man is enrolled, students blocked classes for a second day running on Wednesday.

Junior interior minister Laurent Nunez told France Inter radio that "the real emotion" triggered by the man's suicide bid was "understandable".

But he described the damage caused to the ministry building, death threats received by managers of student bursaries, and the blocking of Hollande's conference as "totally unacceptable".

The political sciences student lost his grant after twice failing his second year.

In his Facebook post, which was published by Lyon's Le Progres newspaper, he said that even when he received a 450-euro ($495) monthly bursary, he struggled to get by.

Taking aim at "liberalism, which creates inequality" he accused Macron, his predecessors, Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the European Union of having "killed me".

The government is warily watching the demonstrations, fearing they could feed into continuing "yellow vest" unrest and bolster calls for mass strike action over pension reforms on Dec. 5.

Ndiaye, the government spokeswoman, defended the government's record on student aid, noting that the number of bursaries available to struggling students had risen by 1.1 percent for the 2019/2020 academic year.

But Bastien Pereira Besteiro, a union activist and teacher at Lyon 2 university, said the protests would continue until the government came up with a "satisfactory response" to student poverty.

In the student's hometown of Saint-Etienne in central France, one of his cousins told a rally Tuesday he had committed a "heroic act" and urged fellow students to "continue fighting".

In Lyon, several hundred people demonstrated Tuesday outside the headquarters of the loan authority.

A third-year social sciences student, who gave only her first name Sophie, said in Lyon her grant had been canceled because she failed her exams after having spent time in hospital.

She said she was forced to work several jobs and rummage through garbage bins for food.

In Lille, about 350 students stormed the law faculty where Hollande was to speak, shouting "Hollande, murderer!"

In France, studying for a basic degree is free, apart from a small registration fee.

Government data from 2016 showed that almost a third of students repeated their first year, and only 28.4 percent obtained their three-year degree in three years.

Many students work to support themselves, a factor often cited for high rates of exam failure. A 2018 survey by the UNEF student union showed that 46 percent of students planned to work.

As part of his bid to cut the budget deficit, Macron last year trimmed a housing subsidy available to students.

While the cut — five euros ($5.50) a month was limited — the move caused controversy, coming as the government cut taxes on the wealthy.

Self-immolations became a symbol of revolt since the 2010-2011 Arab Spring, which began in Tunisia when a young vegetable vendor set himself alight in protest over unemployment and police harassment. — AFP


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