On March 22, 2018, at least ten unidentified individuals violently attacked a group of students protesting a national university reform who were occupying an amphitheatre at the University of Montpellier’s Faculty of Law.
Students at universities across the country have been protesting a reform initiated under President Emmanuel Macron that they claim would make university entrance requirements overly strict. At the University of Montpellier, students held a general assembly on March 22 to discuss the reform, later voting to hold a follow-up assembly early the next day. Some of the students opposed to the reform reportedly decided that they would occupy a law school amphitheatre, where the assembly would be held early the next morning, in order to ensure their access to it.
That night, while approximately 50 students occupied the amphitheatre, a group of at least ten hooded and masked individuals armed with batons reportedly stormed inside, and began attacking the students and forcing their evacuation. Video evidence and student accounts indicate that university security officers were stationed immediately outside the amphitheatre and did not intervene to stop the attackers. Some students reported that the security officers and the armed individuals closed off access to and remained inside the building after the students left. At least four students were injured during the attack.
News of the attack immediately prompted investigations by state and education authorities. On March 28, authorities took into custody Philippe Pétel, former dean of the Faculty of Law, who resigned after facing public accusations that he helped coordinate the armed evacuation, and Jean Luc Coronel de Boissezon, a reportedly conservative law professor, who students reported as being among the attackers. Video evidence shows Dean Pétel and Professor Coronel de Boissezon speaking with the students in a heated exchange outside the amphitheatre not long before the attack. According to media sources, Professor Coronel de Boissezon has admitted to being in the amphitheatre during the attack and has not denied his involvement.
As of this report, the university remains closed and an investigation into Professor Coronel de Boissezon, Dean Pétel, and other suspects is ongoing.
Scholars at Risk is concerned by violence targeting students in an effort to retaliate against and prevent the exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly — conduct which is expressly protected under international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which France is a party. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such attacks threaten academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally. State and university authorities have a responsibility to prevent violence on campus, and to investigate and hold accountable perpetrators of such attacks.