“La Précarité Tue”: Financial Hardship Kills

During the rally in Lyon, against student precariousness in front of the Crous de Lyon after a student set himself on fire on November 8. Photo by Bruno Amsellem for Libération

by Olivia McGhie

The lecture hall is packed, students are sat tightly together in the rows of musty smelling seats, and banners have been flung over the sides of the oval shaped room reading “la précarité tue” (hardship kills). The General Assembly held at the Pierre Mendes Centre here in Paris by the Student’s Union “solidaires étudiant-e-s”, which represents a federation of student unions across France, has been called in an emergency. A decision needs to be made over how to respond to the latest and perhaps most shocking manifestation of a student response to financial hardship felt at university in France.

On the 8th November a twenty-two-year-old student at the University of Lyon II known only as Anas K set himself on fire outside of a CROUS student residence building in France’s third largest city. Currently in a coma fighting for his life with 90% of his body burned, Anas K has become the new powerful symbol of a reinvigorated student movement in France that is pushing for sweeping reforms to the university system in France so that this never happens again.

Financial hardship is an all too real experience for students in France. Nearly 20% of students live under the poverty line with 46% of students having to work alongside their studies in order to be able to survive. Furthermore, 65% of students describe themselves as feeling sad or depressed for most of the day almost every day. These worrying statistics, which also show 30% of students having had suicidal thoughts in the last twelve months, only scratch the surface of France’s institutional problem with the treatment of its vast student cohort.

Whilst higher education is free, and something students in France tell me they dearly want to keep free, the cost of living in France as a student can make pre-existing precarious financial situations even worse. For myself, an Erasmus student living in Paris, the rose-tinted glasses which I look at this city soaked in history and politics through can sometimes obscure the truth. A one-bed apartment here which is within walking distance of the university will set you back in excess of €800 a month. For those native students who have moved to Paris with a similar fog of romanticism cast over their heads also too often encounter the harsh realities of France’s problem.

There are 2.7 million students in higher education in France, yet the State provides only 165,000 beds in public university residences. As a result, many students have to live with their parents to avoid the dizzying prices of the inner city. Yet, one form of financial oppression is exchanged for another: for those living in the more affordable outskirts, then have to rack up debts for the public transport system to get them to lectures and seminars. The State does give out 712,000 grants each year to students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, but for a third of these students this grant amounts only to free enrolment into the university administrative system at the beginning of the year which costs between €150-200. For the rest of the grant holders, of which the promise of financial security appears more and more like a mirage, 103,000 students get €140 a month and 45,000 students get €462 per month. What ensues therefore is a viscous cycle which affects disproportionately members of France’s working-class student population. If a grant is received it is at best meagre and will certainly not cover the rent in the largest cities, thus they have to take up a job to cover their living costs which causes them to miss teaching time. Consequently, more than 40% of French students are absent from their classes because of their part-time jobs. This cynical paradox of the French education system which sees disproportionate amounts of students who have to take up a job having to retake exams or even an entire year, thus falling even further into debt is paired with a cost of living that has increased by 30% since 2008.

Anas K, the man driven to set himself on fire by a system that simply does not work for the majority of students wrote of this relentless cycle that he found himself in, in a Facebook status posted before he attempted to take his own life: “This year I am doing the second year of my bachelor’s degree for the third time. I have no grant. Even when I had one, I received €450 a month. How can one live on that? And after our studies how long will we have to work to pay our social charges to have a decent pension?” 

He concluded his post by directly implicating French politicians and institutions in his decision to end his own life. He brazenly accused President Macron, former Presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy, and the EU for cultivating an uncertain future for himself and so many others with their fiscal austerity reforms. He also pointed the finger at far-right politician Marine Le Pen for fostering an atmosphere of racism and Islamophobia in France with her poisonous words.

The right to education is a Human Right. France’s universities provide a rich and fulfilling education for its students, but an education should not come at a financial cost that drives so many towards depression and suicide. To live within one’s means is not a luxury, to live decently and without stress is not a radical suggestion and neither are the reforms called for by France’s student unions.

France’s students are therefore set to take to the streets on the 5th December hand in hand with the Gilet Jaunes and a number of other powerful unions in a day of action that is set to bring France to a standstill. President Macron’s neoliberal fiscal policies have met their match in France’s student cohort and with echoes of the ’68 movement in the air. These student voices simply demand a student experience in which they do more than just survive, are not going away.


Study Abroad Columnist: Olivia McGhie, 3rd Year BA History Undergraduate. Currently studying abroad at University Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, Paris. 


References for statistics