The outspoken French Student Union is at the forefront of change


PARIS – A powerful government minister recently condemned it as an organization whose activities are racist and could lead to “fascism”. Lawmakers accused it of promoting “separatism” and siding with the “Islamic left” before calling for its dissolution.

The 114-year-old French university student union, Unef, has a long history of inciting the ire of the political establishment – most notably over the years it has lobbied for the independence of Algeria, the country’s most important colony, or has taken to the streets against Employment contracts for young people.

But the recent ruthless attacks have focused on something that resonates deeply in France as it struggles to adapt to social change: its practice of limiting some meetings to ethnic minorities to discuss discrimination.

In recent days, the controversy over Unef – its French acronym to symbolize the National Union of France’s Students – has spilled over into a third week, mingled with the larger, explosive discussions engulfing the country.

On Thursday, the Senate Supported Banning the group and other entities that organize restricted meetings, with attaching a “Unef edit” To President Emmanuel Macron A law against Islamism, A political ideology the government blames for instigating the recent terrorist attacks. The National Assembly, which is controlled by Mr. Macron’s party, still needs to pass the bill, which is expected to be one of the specific legislation for his presidency.

Meanwhile, the campaign ahead of the upcoming regional elections was turned upside down when Audrey Boulvard, a black deputy mayor in Paris and a high-profile candidate, was widely condemned after defending the banned meetings.

Student union leaders defend the use of the “Safe Space” forums, saying they have led to strong and candid conversation; Critics say the exclusion amounts to anti-white racism and is an American-inspired betrayal of global French traditions.

To its critics, Unef is the embodiment of the threat emanating from American universities – importing ideas that fundamentally challenge relationships between women and men, questioning the role of race and racism in France, and disturbing hierarchies of power in society.

There is no doubt that in recent years the Union has undergone a kind of profound and rapid transformation seldom seen in a country where institutions tend to be very conservative and some, such as French Academy or Literary award juries, They are regulated in ways that stifle change.

The union’s transformation reflects widespread changes among French youth who have more relaxed attitudes toward gender, race, and sexual orientation, as has recently been the case. Polls He demonstrated the strict religion and secularism of France, known as secularism.

Unef’s change may – some hope and others fear – heralds greater social change.

“We scare people because we represent the future,” said Melanie Luce, 24, head of the United Nations, and daughter of a black woman from Guadeloupe and a Jewish man from southern France.

In an organization dominated by white men until a few years ago, UNICEF’s current leadership shows a diversity rarely observed in France. Mrs. Luce is its fifth female president and first non-white. Among its top four leaders are two white men, a woman whose parents converted to Islam, and a Muslim man whose parents emigrated from Tunisia.

“The United Nations is a microcosm that reveals discussions in society,” said Lail Bass, the former president. She said that this debate in France is just beginning to seriously address issues such as discrimination, “which is why it crystallizes so many tensions and pressures.”

Like other student unions, Unef works on government subsidies, about $ 540,000 a year in her condition. Among its tasks are to address the living conditions of students, and recently to organize, for example, food banks for students severely affected by the Coronavirus epidemic.

But her increasingly outspoken social stances have drawn criticism from the political establishment, conservative news media, and even some former members.

In interviews with more than a dozen current and former UNIFIL leaders, including all seven heads of the past twenty years, they were not uniformly comfortable with UNIF’s recent stances, which placed combating discrimination at the core of its mission.

Critics say its new focus has reduced the union’s influence and membership – it was once the largest but is now the second largest in France. Proponents say that, unlike many left-leaning militant organizations in France, the union has a clear new vision.

In 2019, at a black-faced protest, leaders of the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unef) helped stop a play by Aeschylus at the Sorbonne to denounce the wearing of masks and dark makeup by white actors, leading to accusations of a violation of freedom of expression.

Recently, local Grenoble officials posted anonymous posters on campus on social media that include the names of two professors accused of Islamophobia. Lucy later described it as a mistake, but many politicians described it as evidence of the “Islamic left” of UNICEF or their sympathy for Islamism.

The attacks rose to a new high last month after Ms Luce was challenged on the radio Interview On UNIF’s practice of holding meetings restricted to ethnic minorities.

A decade ago, UNICEF leaders began women-only meetings where members first spoke about sexism and sexual harassment in the organization. Discussions have since extended to include racism and other forms of discrimination internally.

Ms Luce explained to her radio host that no decisions were made at the restricted meetings, which were used instead to allow women and ethnic minorities to share common experiences of discrimination. But the interview led to a deluge of racial and racial death Threats.

On a later radio Interview For his part, Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blunker, agreed with the host’s description of the racially restricted meetings.

“People who claim to be progressive and who, in their claim to be progressive, who identify people by the color of their skin lead us to things like fascism,” said Mr. Blankker.

Mr. Blankier led the government against what he and conservative intellectuals described as a threat on his part Progressive American Ideas On race, gender, and postcolonialism.

France’s cultural wars flared up with Mr. Macron turning to the right to ward off a The challenge looms from the far right Before next year’s election. His government recently announced that it will University investigation On the “left-wing Islamist” tendencies that “corrupt society.”

Now, even relatively vague social theory terms such as “intersectionality” – the analysis of multiple forms and reinforcing discrimination – draw fierce attacks from politicians.

“There is a battle being waged against an ideological matrix that comes from American universities and from intersecting theories about the fundamentalization of societies and identities,” Mr. Blankier said in a statement. Interview With a French newspaper.

Mr. Blankier turned down requests for interviews, and so did Minister for Higher Education Frederick Vidal.

Aurore Bergé, a lawmaker from Mr. Macron’s party, said the United Nations’ actions lead to identity politics that, instead of uniting people in a common cause, exclude all persons except for “those who suffer discrimination.”

“We expel others as if they do not have the right of expression,” said Ms. Birgi, who recently introduced an amendment that would have banned Muslim minors from wearing the headscarf in public.

The current top leaders of UNICEF say they are fighting, by focusing on discrimination, for France’s ideals of freedom, equality and human rights.

They view the recent attacks as backward moves by an institution that refuses to directly confront the discrimination rooted in France, cannot come to terms with the growing diversity in its society, and brandishes universality to silence new ideas and voices, out of fear. .

“It is a problem in our society, in the country of enlightenment, we prevent ourselves from talking about certain topics,” said Magdy Sharana, UNIFEM treasurer and son of Tunisian immigrants.

Student affairs expert Julie Le Mazier said that as the Student Union spoke more boldly, the influence of Unef had diminished, as did other left-leaning organizations – including the Socialist Party, which it had been allied with for a long time, and the trade unions in unions in European Center for Sociology and Political Science.

“It’s a big crisis, but it’s not specific to UNICEF at all,” she said.

The union was headed by Bruno Juilliard when incumbent Jacques Chirac forced the overthrow of a rival Youth employment contract In 2006. At the time, the union was more concerned with issues like tuition fees and getting jobs, said Mr. Juilliard, the union’s first openly gay president.

Mr. Juilliard said that restricted union meetings and opposition to Aeschylus left him uncomfortable, but that young people are now “much more sensitive, in the good sense of the word,” to all forms of discrimination.

He said, “We have to let each generation lead its fights and respect the way it does, although that does not prevent me from giving an opinion.”

William Martinet, the former president, said the focus on gender ultimately led to an examination of racism. While top leaders of the United Nations tended to be white men who were economically comfortable with “great schools” in France, or prestigious universities, many of the grassroots activists were working-class, immigrant, and non-white backgrounds.

“Once you wear glasses that allow you to see the distinction, in fact, there are many people who appear in front of you,” said Mr. Martinet.

Once started, the change happened quickly. More women are becoming leaders. Abdullah Diarra, who said he became UNICEF’s first black vice president in 2017, recruited a veiled woman whose parents had converted to Islam, Mary PugetuxNow, one of the vice-presidents of the federation.

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

But the reception was a lot different from outside.

Last fall, when the veiled Mrs. Pougetto appeared in the National Assembly to testify about the impact of the Covid epidemic on students, four MPs, including one from Mr. Macron’s party, withdrew in protest.

Wearing the Islamic headscarf sparked divisions in France for more than a generation. But for UNICEF, the issue is now settled.

Its leaders have long viewed the veil as a symbol of women’s oppression. Now they see it as simply a choice that is left to the women.

Adrian Lennard, another vice president, said, “Really standing up for the status of women is actually giving them the right to do whatever they want.”

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