Solidarity Can Melt Ice: Students and Migrants Occupy a French Château

by Gabriel Bristow

16 December 2017

“Audacity, more audacity, always audacity” — a French student.

As temperatures fell, students in France rose up. The cold snap that began a few weeks ago has prompted a number of university occupations, intended to shelter migrants sleeping rough.

In Nantes, a flurry of direct action began with squatting the city’s empty art school, les Beaux-Arts de Nantes. Located in the heart of the city’s central shopping district, a group of students and young migrants – many of them minors – occupied the building in mid November, much to the chagrin of the Socialist party mayor, Johanna Rolland. The following day the eviction notice, which would normally have come from the city’s police, came directly from the mayor’s office. The occupiers were immediately evicted by force.

Following the encounter, tensions heighten when a photograph circulates showing an activist with blood running down her neck having been batoned by police. A meeting is held the same evening — emotions run high and new plans germinate.

Three days later, a banner appears on the humanities and social sciences department of the university: “Johanna Rolland throws children out onto the streets.” Following a further meeting, the entire lower-ground floor of the department is used to shelter young migrants left homeless. The occupiers set about organising a kitchen, dormitories, a makeshift cinema and a free-shop; room C906 is renamed Salle (de la) Commune, evoking both ‘common room’ and the Paris Commune of 1871.

The local branch of the CGT, France’s foremost Communist party union, brings along a house-warming present: several large settees. Support for the occupation builds both amongst the university’s non-academic staff and across the city, though sympathetic lecturers keep their support relatively quiet to avoid a direct confrontation with the university’s management. The occupation is covered daily by the local press, with the mayor’s eviction of the art school painted as irresponsible and inhumane.

But is the basement of a university really good enough for the working class? Clearly not. On 26 November the occupiers stormed the Château du Tertre, a mansion recently emptied by the university in preparation for renovation. For them, the bare minimum of a roof over one’s head was not enough: “À nous la vie de château” (“the life of luxury for us”). Once they had settled in, press conferences and candlelit banquets ensued in an atmosphere of palpable euphoria.

The château itself was built in the second half of the 19th century — no expense spared — by the Lauriol family, who made their fortune trading in sugar and, records show, slaves. It has formed part of the university campus since the 1960s.

On Monday, the university’s management announced it would ask the police to evict the occupation from 6pm if the students and migrants did not leave of their own accord. Nobody budged. The threat led to increasingly vocal support for the occupation from lecturers, with murmurings of a strike if the château was evicted. “We firmly oppose a police intervention on campus,” said Jean, a junior lecturer-researcher. “French universities have a tradition of welcoming… The campus is a space of debate and it must be protected.” The university’s management subsequently withdrew the threat of a police intervention. As of Saturday morning the life in the château continues. The occupiers await the university’s next move.

The flurry of direct action in Nantes has been accompanied by occupations in cities across France: Genoble, Lyon, Marseille. In Grenoble, nestled in the foothills of the Alps, over 100 migrants have been sheltered in a university lecture hall as temperatures drop below zero. Lyon has seen similar scenes. In Marseille, a church has been occupied by local charities and migrants to the same ends. Here’s hoping this wave of solidarity crosses the Channel.

Sections of this article were translated from an account of the occupations in Nantes in

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