How pro-Palestinian student protests are different in France than the US

By Sarah Elzas - RFI
France  Sarah Elzas/RFI
© Sarah Elzas/RFI

Pro-Palestinian student protests against the war in Gaza have come to a head in France at Sciences Po – the prestigious international relations school – where students continue to stage demonstrations and the government has become involved, pressuring the university to forcibly shut them down. This comes as protests have erupted on campuses across the United States, but the scale, scope and politics are unique to France.

Debates and demonstrations began at Sciences Po soon after Hamas' attack on Israel on 7 October 2023 and Israel started a retaliatory bombing campaign in Gaza.

Pro-Palestinian students – calling on Sciences Po to denounce Israel's offensive – have called out what they maintain is a hypocritical response from the school. 

The university held a minute's silence for the Israeli victims of the 7 October attack, and has condemned other conflicts like Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“I'm not comfortable with the silence around the genocide and I'm not comfortable being a part [of it] ... not using my voice to denounce something, especially when my school is not doing anything for it,” Louise, a first-year master's student in political science, told RFI at a recent pro-Palestinian demonstration in front of the Paris campus.

Another demand from the protesters is for Sciences Po to review its partnerships with Israeli institutions – which the university has refused to do – citing a need to keep academic dialogue open.

More on this story in the Spotlight on France podcast, listen here

The protests hit a tipping point at the start of May, when the Sciences Po president asked police to forcibly remove several dozen students who had set up encampments in the university's main building in Paris.

“You have real student protests for every topic, and this is the one that has been repressed,” said Louise, who was among those occupying the building.

She is French – with no personal connection to the Middle East – but felt compelled to join the protest movement on moral grounds. The police crackdown was even more galvanising.

”Having the police enter the building is really something that is a red line that has been crossed,” she said.

Police crackdown

While the student protests and the police response in the United States set off debates about freedom of speech, in France the focus has been more on a perceived radicalisation of students and the government's intervention, especially at Sciences Po – a private school that receives a lot public funding – and that has trained much of France's political elite, including President Emmanuel Macron.

“Like many students I have been shocked by this political and police interference in a legitimate student action,” Hubert Launois, an undergraduate student at Sciences Po, told RFI.

“It's normal that students mobilise, and it's shocking that the only response from the government is repressive. It's never normal to see police entering a university”.

Administrators of Sciences Po and other universities, like the Sorbonne – where other pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been organised – are under pressure from the government to contain the protests.

But students like Launois say the crackdown is unjustified. He joined the protests, though was not among those arrested by the police, and says he studied the history of student protests in a class.

“Student protests in the past were much more violent. In May 1968, students threw cobblestones at police,” he said.

“Today police are sent against students who are protesting peacefully, in tents. And then there's the way politicians are exploiting such movements”.

Political opportunity

Fewer than five percent of Sciences Po's 15,000 students have taken part in the protests, but they have drawn a lot of attention – partly because of the elite nature of the school, partly because of the events in the US – with politicians eying European Parliament elections at the start of June and using the demonstrations as a backdrop for their political campaigns.

The government got involved in March, when a Jewish student was called a Zionist and was prevented from entering an amphitheatre for a debate on the war in Gaza organised by a pro-Palestinian student group.

Macron called the incident “intolerable", denouncing anti-Semitism, and Prime Minister Gabriel Attal and Higher Education Minister Sylvie Retailleau made the unusual decision to attend a board meeting to push the university to shut the protests down.

The pro-Palestinian protesters have received support from the hard-left France Unbowed party, whose leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, called them France's “honour against genocide”.

He has been accused of supporting the demonstrations for political gain, but right-wing politicians have also weighed in, calling out anti-Semitism and denouncing “Islamo-leftists”, who they say are taking the universities hostage.

As the school year comes to a close, and students are sitting for exams, the authorities are continuing their efforts to contain the protests at Sciences Po campuses around the country.

Find this story and more in the Spotlight on France podcast, episode 111, listen here.