PARIS — Student uproars have been bursting out in the Paris Latin Quarter since the Middle Ages, but the winding streets have never seen anything quite like the series of demonstrations and disorders of the last two weeks.
In a rolling sequence that took everyone by surprise, a mass of marching students, politely firm and strictly nonviolent, has won a major victory over attempts by the government of Premier Jacques Chirac to change their status in French society. They marched by the thousands, not only in Paris but in dozens of provincial cities.
The demonstrators, many of them still in their teens, are forcing their elders to redefine themselves. The rightward course of government has been abruptly checked, at least temporarily. Some commentators, unwisely ignoring French history, are even hailing the dawn of a new politics that puts people above party.
Perhaps the feeling was best defined in a nondescript doorway near the Sorbonne where a 22-year-old student named Malik Oussekine, a French citizen of Algerian origin, was cornered by police during serious disorders on the night of Dec. 5. According to several witnesses, the youth, who was trying to find shelter, was beaten and kicked by police. He died shortly afterward of cardiac arrest. While the police did not deny that he had been roughed up, they said death was due to Oussekine's long-treated kidney disorder.
In the doorway last week, protesters piled banks of flowers and pine boughs, and covered the walls with anti-government messages. There were two dozen exquisite pink roses from a fashionable prep school on the Right Bank, a bouquet of lilies from the Communist Party's dwindling contingent in the National Senate, a wreath from a civic organization of the beleaguered North African community and a bunch of carnations from a group of suburban railroad trackmen.
A silent, apolitical mourning march on Wednesday continued the unlikely right-left coalition. In addition to several hundred-thousand students came representatives of a teachers' union and thousands of workers from a communist-led labor federation. Parents walked with sons and daughters; order was kept by volunteer marshals, many of them lawyers and doctors who stepped in when the police found it wise not to appear.
The students won. Universities in France have traditionally been sanctuaries from the bourgeois mores governing much of the rest of society. Any high school graduate may attend any university in France, paying a tiny fee and keeping an undemanding schedule. Graduates are given a standard diploma that does not even tell which university the student attended.
Conservatives argue that the system penalizes good students and prevents employers from finding qualified workers. Many believe that the system hampers France's technological advance. It is a fact that many of the best students in technical fields go to the United States for courses. French students are aware of their prospects; according to some estimates, about one-third of them cannot find jobs after graduation.
Three weeks ago Chirac's education minister, Rene Monory, introduced a proposed reform. Its main provisions would raise tuition to about $125, introduce a diploma that reflects performance and allow universities to admit students on the basis of merit.
The first protest in Paris attracted a crowd that some estimated at half a million. The only trouble came from a handful of right-wing students in motorcycle jackets, crash helmets and scarfs covering their faces.
Under pressure and taken by surprise, Chirac's government announced withdrawal of some reforms. Serious confrontations began Friday, however. One of them left Oussekine dead; more than 200 students and riot police were injured, several dozen cars were burned and a number of stores looted. Both Chirac and student leaders said the troublemakers were non-students seeking to capitalize on violence.
Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist president, in an ill-defined power-sharing arrangement called "cohabitation," then stepped in. He paid a sympathy call on Oussekine's family and demanded that Chirac withdraw the entire reform bill.
Chirac assented. He also cancelled a special session of the National Assembly next month that was to take up key elements of his law-and-order, anti-immigration program. The government gives every evidence of new caution. In Brussels, where the European Economic Community is considering cuts in agricultural quotas, France has reportedly blocked debate because Chirac's government worries about farmers taking to the streets, creating a new crisis.
In the balance sheet of winners and losers, Mitterrand has recouped prestige while Chirac's ability to govern has been damaged. The students, having values about success that are diametrically opposed to the student rampages of May, 1968, have yet to define themselves beyond educational issues.
Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge from between the lines of march is a new generation gap; parents, schooled in the 1960s, are far more radical than their offspring. One cartoon in Liberation, the students' newspaper of choice, showed a stone flying through the air and a young demonstrator shouting, "Papa! Behave yourself!"