By Anton Mukhamedov, photos by Marine Carbonnel
On Monday, November 7, a general student assembly took place in the amphitheater, recently christened “Amphitheater Olivier Ruchet” by the students protesting against the termination of the head of the Euro-American program.
Following the news announced last week, many questions were raised as to the course of action to adopt with regards the administration and while the protest last Friday gathered at least several dozen supporters, the legitimacy of speaking for the whole of the student body while making demands for transparency or for Mr Ruchet’s reinstatement was challenged.
According to an established tradition, the three student representatives, the BDE or the BDA have the right to convene a general assembly in order to deliberate and vote on a specific agenda when they deem it necessary. This time roughly 80 students came to discuss both their demands to the administration and the means of protest they were willing to undertake in order to ensure that these goals were met, with also about 80 absentee ballots from those students willing to express an opinion despite not being able to attend the meeting. Nevertheless, as the General Assembly Charter—drafted by the current student representatives—outlined, a minimum of 200 students was required in order to take a decision on behalf of the entire student body of the Reims campus, making the decisions taken that day “strongly advisory” instead of binding.
However, this did not seem to impact the motivation of the audience, who, after a quick recapitulation of the past week’s events, quickly engaged in a debate on the administration’s duty of transparency. The list of demands—the first part of the agenda—was broken down into several key points, such as the need for transparency around Mr Ruchet’s dismissal, the need for general transparency in handling reforms, the reinstatement of Mr Ruchet—indefinitely or otherwise—and finally the dialogue and cooperation between the students and the administration around major decisions affecting the student body.
The assembly was soon divided over the question of the students’ right to request from the administrators something that might be unrealistic or even illegal, as the official communiqués of Frédéric Mion justify their inability to disclose the reasons for Mr Ruchet’s dismissal due to the latter’s right to privacy and confidentiality. The discussion moved into a legal field, where each speaker provided a different perspective of what could and could not be done according to French labour laws in a private institution such as the Fondation Nationale des Sciences Politiques. Before the disagreements would make the participants lose track of the agenda, the moderators saw it necessary to reunite the students around a call for action: “This body does commit itself to a series of goals and concrete actions in regards to these events (the dismissal of Professor Ruchet and subsequent reactions from the administration)”. The first two votes of the evening—the agenda was to be kept and that particular item was to pass with a strong majority—would determine that despite the numerous divisions within the assembly, few were satisfied with the status quo and most participants supported a certain form of a protest movement.
As most of the assembly members seemed to agree on key concerns, such as the unexpected and unfortunate timing of the dismissal—right at the time when the second year students needed advice from an experienced member of personnel on third-year inscriptions,— as well as a lack of information on the reforms aiming at transforming SciencesPo’s Collège universitaire,—unity was thwarted not by particular points of divergence, but rather by unforeseen circumstances. While additions were made to the agenda, stories emerged of a “spying” on students’ discussions that allegedly took place on social media, which led to the administration obtaining information on who was involved in the protest movement, leaving a margin of maneuverer for possible coercion. While only alleged, accounts of such attempts at control of student life contributed to raising concerns among students, when it unexpectedly turned out that one of the cameras of the amphitheater was on and recording the event, as evidenced by a red light. The atmosphere of uneasiness led to the participants decision to cover up the device with a student’s sweater, allowing a re-installment of freedom of expression.
Still, it was only roughly fifteen more minutes in when another interruption culminated in a schism within the assembly, as the campus director Nathalie Jacquet entered the room, asking for the right to listen to student grievances in order to understand them. While one of the moderators, Zak Vescera, spoke to remind of the rules of the general assembly—according to which no administrator was to be allowed during the deliberations—an insistence in his tone as well as a premature round of applause from the audience immediately when Mrs Jacquet was gone, convinced a minority of students already disagreeing with certain outcomes of the votes, that respect for dissent was not part of the assembly. By the end of the first half of the assembly, a dozen of members had left the room, refusing to be part of the decision-making process.
Yet, the tone of the moderator addressing Mrs Jacquet was perhaps also what allowed the assembly to continue: “I really hope that you will take this comparison in a positive way, because the only person not allowed to enter the House of Commons is Queen Elizabeth the Second”. In the minds of the assembly members, such a comparison seemed to reassert the event’s democratic character, legitimising further deliberations.
In the next hour, the assembly voted more than 10 times, expressing support for actions ranging from petitions to physical protests, in order to encourage, for instance, the reinstatement of Mr Ruchet, or,—in case of impossibility,—a guarantee that his successor would be as qualified to deal with the second year students’ requests for advise, but also more general concessions from the administration, such as a dialogue between students and the administration around the upcoming reforms, a greater transparency and an acknowledgement of the fact that the circumstances around Mr Ruchet’s dismissal were poorly handled.
In the end, 80 or so students present in the amphitheatre on Monday evening plus 80 absentee ballots might still not speak for the student community as a whole and the advisory judgement it confers might not have a mobilising effect on those Reims campus students who have not attended the assembly, but the November 7th General Assembly was certainly a step in the direction of greater organisation of SciencesPistes in pursuit of certain demands, which at this stage of the protest are already well-defined.