Midnight, Place de Grève in Paris. Grève, not as in strike, but as in shore or strand. Except this time both definitions coincide. This beautiful square, right in the heart of Paris, opposite the city town hall, has been chosen by protesters to stage a ronde des obstinés, loosely translated as the hard-headed round. They’ve been walking in circles for two weeks, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They may be hundreds, or just a dozen in the dead of night, but the walk keeps going round. They were the first surprised to see that it should keep going, that neither rain nor cold could hamper their newly set perpetual motion. What are they protesting against? The rushed and ill-conceived university reform wanted by the Sarkozy government which would, in the words of a university professor, transform knowledge into commodity, students into clients, professors into service suppliers and universities into enterprises seeking profits at all costs. Students and professors, in a unique show of solidarity and unity, have been protesting loudly for three months. And the ways in which they have done it, reinventing in the process the art of protest, have almost eclipsed the reasons of their discontent – on which there is a long and detailed summary.
La ronde des obstinés is but one method of showing their determination. As professor-researcher Isabelle Launay puts it very eloquently after three hours of walking in circle: « Obstinacy and determination are both key qualities for research. » Sometimes, a famous face comes and joins, such as José Bové. People bring them cakes. Tourists want to know more. The round becomes an endless and permanently renewed conversation.
Protesters have also staged 10-minute readings in landmark squares, such as Place St Michel in Paris but also in city centres such as Strasbourg’s Grand Place. Warned by SMS, students and professors gather at a precise time and location. All they need to do is bring a book and, at a signal, start reading aloud for 10 minutes. Suddenly, the place fills with words drowned in very loud humming. The effect is arresting, almost surreal. Ten minutes later, everybody falls silent and leaves.
A marathon reading of a classic of French literature, La Princesse de Clèves, a 17th-century novel which has become a symbol of resistance against Nicolas Sarkozy’s crassness after he complained about having to read it for an exam that he failed, took place in Place du Panthéon in Paris. The popular Left Bank actor Louis Garrel started the marathon.
The list of pioneering protests is long: lectures by university professors have been given in public places such as L’Arc de Triomph, in trams and in the metro. There have been public trials of government members and auctions of philosophical concepts. The web has played a key role in allowing associations of students to exchange ideas and information and attract the public.
Both education ministers, Valérie Pécresse and Xavier Darcos, though media-savvy and astute negotiators, have found themselves destabilised by such innovative forms of protest. They have already given ground to the protesters but haven’t entirely withdrawn the reform. The people at Hôtel de Ville in Paris say they will keep walking until they do – and it’s hard not to believe them.