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French student unions demand poverty relief after attempted suicide

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By Alasdair Sandford
Students protest outside a campus building after a 22-year-old man set himself alight over financial problems, Lyon, France, November 12, 2019.
Students protest outside a campus building after a 22-year-old man set himself alight over financial problems, Lyon, France, November 12, 2019.   -   Copyright  PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

This article originally published on November 13 has been updated.

French student unions are calling for urgent government reform of the grants system, following the dramatic attempted suicide of a male student in Lyon last week.

Earlier this week students demonstrated across France to protest over precarity and living conditions, and show solidarity with the young man who set himself on fire to highlight the problem.

The 22-year-old – named in some French media as Anas K – is said to be “between life and death” in hospital after suffering 90% burns. He set himself alight last Friday (November 8) in front of a university building in Lyon, hours after posting details of his own financial difficulties on social media.

In his letter, the young man denounced student precarity for which he blamed successive French presidents as well as the European Union, and called on fellow students to continue the fight against insecurity.

Read more:French student sets himself alight in 'despair' at financial problems

On Tuesday a crowd estimated at almost a thousand gathered at the scene to pay tribute. Several students read out the text of his message, in which he described his personal struggle.

In Paris several hundred people demonstrated in the evening outside the offices of the student welfare body CROUS, before marching to the nearby higher education ministry. There, some entered a front courtyard after an outside gate was ripped down. There were calls for the minister’s resignation.

Other demonstrations took place in several other French cities including Lille – where former President François Hollande was forced to cancel a meeting – as well as Bordeaux, Toulouse, Montpellier, Nantes and the student’s home town of Saint-Etienne.

On Thursday (November 14) two student unions – la Fage and UNEF – called for an "urgent re-evaluation" of university grants, following a meeting with a government minister and higher education officials.

Both said the government had not come up with concrete measures and vowed to keep up the pressure. Three more unions had appointments at the ministry on Friday afternoon.

The French government insists it is taking the problem of student poverty seriously. Junior education minister Gabriel Attal told the National Assembly earlier this week that "student precarity and sometimes, student misery" were a reality that the government had "seized with both hands" over the past two years.

He defended the government's record, saying that some student fees had been scrapped, grants had been increased, and aid was available for students in difficulty.

Watch our report on French students' financial problems in the video player above.

Read more:

What does it mean to be poor in Europe today? | Euronews' special coverage