Conducting research on French offshore campuses while “gilet jaunes” stage protests

As part of my doctoral project on the development of French offshore campuses I conduct interviews with decision-makers in higher education institutions or in public bodies in charge of developing France’s transnational education. During a field work from mid-April to mid-May 2019 I not only delved into the cosmos of France’s higher education, its actors, institutions, news reports and values, but also experienced a France mourning the damage on the Cathedral Notre Dame, a France divided between supporters and opponents to the gilets jaunes protests and a France very active in driving transnational higher education, as exemplified with the new French-Senegal campus of Diamniadio. To me, all those events come together as stories through which the line between what is commonly referred to as the “winners” and the “losers” of globalization can be drawn. 

Conducting interviews with decision-makers developing France’s transnational higher education, it seemed logical and necessary for higher education institutions to train global citizens that would become decision-makers feeling at ease and adapting easily to the evolution of a competitive global market. Often linked to ideas of excellence and elite education, the development of French offshore campuses reflects the selective system of the French education system in which the best students run a competitive national entry exam to enter the best higher education institutions. However, the lifestyle associated with this development, namely becoming an international, cosmopolitan elite, did not receive everyone’s approval in France. A discourse opposing a global, privileged class to the “people” has been recurrently mobilized by the “gilets jaunes” to protest against a government in favor of a globalized market order in which they feel left behind: a survey conducted by Elabe and the Institut Montaigne between December 2018 and January 2019 reveals that 61% of the “gilets jaunes” think that being part of the European Union is more negative than positive for France, 80% do not trust the president Macron and 29% voted for the extreme right party during the last presidential election.

One of my Parisian friend expressed anger at those protests that had been blocking the metros every Saturday since November 2018, and that seemed, to her, not to have a clear political claim. Another friend of mine was fully supporting the movement and felt repulsed by the police patrolling in Paris. I could see in Paris what is said about the country as a whole: that it was divided between the pro “gilets jaunes” and the rest. The tension grew after the accident of Notre-Dame on the 15th of April, my first day in Paris. While President Macron immediately promised to mobilize resources of the state to get the Cathedral rebuilt within five years, donations of France’s billionaires started to rain down. One friend I met in Paris in the next days was revolted by those donations, as were many other persons in a city which, as put by the journalist Chakrabortty in the Guardian, “over the past few months’ had been under siege from the working poor of the gilets jaunes” and was “reminded once again of the enormous wealth held by a very few of its citizens”. According to the above mentioned survey, 46% of the gilets jaunes – against 38% for the rest of the population – are revolted by the gap between high and low wages. This might be partly explained by the fact that their living standards amounts on average to 1486€/months, 291€ less than the national level.

The tensions turned into violence on two occasions during my stay: the 20th of April and the 1st of May. During the 23th demonstration of the “gilets jaunes”, on the 20th of April, some shouted to the police “commit suicide!”, in reaction to the suicide wave among police forces: on the 19th of April, a 28th police officer had committed suicide since the beginning of the year, twice as much as one year earlier. A few days later, Labor Day, marked by violence between the police riots and black blocs. Under tear gas, members of labor unions had to leave the protest. I was shocked when I arrived at Montparnasse to see so many riot police officers (in total 7.400 police officers in Paris) and, in front of them, a never ending crowd of protesters (between 40 and 80.000 protesters), among which I could see yellow vests, French flags and hear some explosions. In this political context, I started to wonder about how to make sense of the development of offshore campuses. Does this latter offer an opportunity to obtain an international degree for students who would not otherwise have the financial resources to study abroad, what would in turn allow less privileged citizens to move up the social ladder? Or does this development, on the contrary, happen in a bubble made for the privileged ones used to international mobility and speaking English, thereby drawing a symbolic wall separating them from more nation-bound, less privileged citizens?

Talking about walls, I discovered during my stay that the Eiffel Tower has been surrounded by a bulletproof glass wall since June 2018 as to protect the tourists from terrorist attacks. This wall is not visible (yet) on the miniature versions of the Eiffel Tower that are being sold at its feet by undocumented street vendors when they are not chased by the police. Those vendors come mostly from Africa, more precisely from Senegal, where a French-Senegalese campus should open in Fall 2019 in the newly built city of Diamniadio I heard of from an interview partner. Backed up by Emmanuel Macron and Macky Sall, this new “education hub” illustrates how international partnerships between higher education institutions can function as one element of soft power, symbolizing the attractiveness of French higher educations for international students and its capacity to shape tomorrow’s elites. Yet, how to make sense of these developments, while opponents to the European Union and to the elites are raging in France?

I left Paris with a tensed feeling about the political situation, and wondered about the extent to which transnational higher education could be seen as a site from which to think the political struggle observable throughout various countries opposing discourses on ‘elites’ and ‘the people’ as winners/losers of the globalization. Accordingly, how would the development of transnational higher education, currently supported by Emmanuel Macron, be impacted if, for instance, the extreme right party – whose leader criticized the growing use of English in French higher education – would win presidential elections in France? And how should higher education institutions and governmental policies best deal today with the development of transnational education as to ensure a stable democratic (European) future?  

Alice Bobée, August 2019

picture : konrad k./sipa

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