A student set himself on fire in front of a university restaurant in Lyon in what friends said was an act of despair and rage at his precarious financial situation as well as unemployment and austerity.
The 22-year-old from St Etienne, near Lyon, was enrolled at Lyon 2 University. He self-immolated at around 3pm in front of the Crous restaurant in Lyon’s 7th arrondissement.
He is currently “between life and death” in hospital, according to student union Solidaires Etudiant-e-s Lyon, of which he is a member. His body is 90% burned, authorities said.
"We did not know about this student's personal struggle, he was very involved in the university body", the president of Lyon 2 university, Dompnier, told the AFP. "The university sends all its support to him, his family, and his friends."
The Lyon 2 university has said it will set up a psychological support unit for students to access from Tuesday, as the university, like all public institutions, is closed Monday for WWI remembrance day.
The French minister for Higher Education visited the university on Saturday in Lyon, to meet with the staff as well as that of the Crous restaurant.
The student has not been formally identified but the union said he had posted a farewell message posted on his private Facebook before his act.
In his Facebook message, published as a screen capture by the union, he wrote that lacking financial aid at university, himself struggled to “survive”, and addressed precarity in university life and beyond.
“Even if I had aid, would 450 euros a month be enough to live?” he wrote. “After our studies, how long will we have to work, pay dues, for a decent pension? Will we be able to have a pension amid mass unemployment?”
He asked for “a student salary, and more generally a lifetime salary” so that people “don’t lose their whole life earning a living”.
He said he had chosen a student restaurant to make a political statement. “Fight against the rise of fascism which divides us, and against liberalism which creates inequalities”, he wrote. “I blame Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and the EU for my death because they made everyone’s future uncertain; I blame also Le Pen and commentators who agitate fear.”
The student was in a “highly precarious financial situation, denied financial aid and desperate," the student union Solidaires Etudiant-e-s Lyon said in a statement, adding: “Insecurity destroys lives.”
The union, which has called for a nationwide support rally on Tuesday, expressed concern for students in similar situations and regretted “inhumane institutions, insecurity, too common violence applied by the state and universities against students," Their fellow student’s act, they said, was “deeply political” and a “battle cry against a fascist and racist system that breaks people."
“We are all extremely shocked and sad”, Leila Mathias of the Solidaires Etudiant-e-s Lyon union told Euronews, regretting that her friend had been strugged with "widespread indifference” from institutions that could have helped.
His gesture was “heavy with meaning”, she said. “We need more financial aid for students, a lower cost of life, cheaper rent and meals for students, even if that means requisitioning empty buildings.”
Most students, she said, are in a precarious financial situation. The highest amount of aid a student can receive is 550 euros a month: “You need to eat… But if you can cover rent with 550 euros in Lyon, you’re lucky.”
Under the French system, if students miss a class, they will lose their financial aid – yet Mathias explained that many students who have no other source of income have to work on top of their university schedule.
“Among students, 43% give up medical care, half of them for financial reasons,” she said, citing another study that found that 8% of students have thought of suicide in the last year, compared to 3% in the general population.
Mathias said she agreed with her friend’s political message.
“This government and the ones that came before are responsible, with their neo-liberal, restrictive laws”, she said. ‘Unions have warned about such conditions for years. What the government does kills us! We’re fighting to be able to live a dignified life.”
Mathias said that, as of Saturday afternoon, her organisation had not been contacted by the French government. “This is a tragic case and we have heard nothing from them. They don’t care, there is no fund put in place for students, just silence.” However, the union said later that the office of Higher Education minister Frederique Vidal had expressed concern and offered to meet.
Many students and other people shared their own experiences of financial struggles on social media through the hashtag #LaPrécaritéTue, initiated by Solidaires Etudiant-e-s Lyon.