On December 5, 2019, a group of unidentified individuals reportedly attacked students preparing to protest on the University Paul-Valéry, Montpellier III (UPVM-3) campus, injuring two of them.
Students at universities across France were joining civil servants and others in a national strike, protesting President Emmanuel Macron’s plans for pension reforms. University student unions, trade unions, and political groups planned marches in urban centers across the country.
At approximately 6:40 AM on December 5, at least ten students belonging to a group known as the Syndicat de Combat Universitaire de Montpellier (SCUM) gathered outside a bar near the UPVM-3 campus. From there, they planned to proceed to the university, where they would block access to campus as the strike began — a common tactic employed during student strikes in France.
Shortly after the students convened, they were approached by a group of eight to nine masked men armed with batons and knives. Students alleged that the men shouted insults at them, including “dirty leftists” and “leave leftists, go back to work!” The men then began attacking the students (reports differed as to whether the attackers actually used their knives or batons). Two students were reportedly injured in the attack. As the students attempted to escape to campus, the masked men ran after them in pursuit.
The students and university officials have provided differing accounts as to what followed. According to a statement from SCUM and student interviews with the media, university security guards closed the gates on the students as they approached campus. The guards’ actions, as the student group’s statement suggests, may have been due to the presence of the assailants who were still closely following in pursuit. Around 8:00 AM, the students returned to the campus entrance, where two students injured in the attack were then able to receive assistance. University officials appeared to dispute the claims that the students were initially denied assistance, alleging that they constitute “baseless accusations that stigmatize university personnel.” According to a statement on the university’s website, the administration learned of off-campus clashes from police, and security guards provided first aid to students when they entered campus at 8:02 AM.
SCUM has alleged that the attackers were associated with far-right groups, apparently based on their anti-leftist comments during the attack. As of this writing, there are no reports indicating that perpetrators have been identified or apprehended by police.
The December 5 incident follows a similar fact pattern to an incident at the University of Montpellier in March 2018, when a group of masked men violently attacked a group of students occupying an amphitheatre as part of protests over proposed national education reforms (see report).
Scholars at Risk is concerned by violent attacks on students in an apparent effort to restrict expressive activity. State and university authorities have a responsibility to prevent and respond to violent attacks on students, including by investigating and holding perpetrators of such attacks accountable. In addition to the harm to the immediate victims, such attacks threaten academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.