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France: University Sciences Po calls in police to break up pro-Palestinian protest

Riot police disperse protesters at elite university, in a sign campus protests are spreading from US to Europe
Students set up an encampment at the elite Sciences Po University in Paris before administrators called in police to break up the protest on 24 April 2024 (MEE/Sania Mahyou)
By Sania Mahyou in Paris

France's Sciences Po, one of the country's top universities, called in police to break up an unauthorised pro-Palestinian encampment on Wednesday, as Israel's siege and bombardment of Gaza sparks a wave of anger across campuses in the US and western Europe.

Around 60 students started an encampment at one of the institution's Paris campuses earlier in the day, but within four hours, university administrators called in police to break up the sit-in after some students refused to leave.

University officials said in a statement that it was "decided that the police would evacuate the site" after the protest was accused of causing "tensions".

The protesters had been demanding that Sciences Po stop funnelling endowment money to Israeli companies and other businesses, like weapons manufacturers, that profit from the war on Gaza.

Since the events of 7 October, when a Hamas-led attack on southern Israel killed 1,150 and resulted in more than 200 people being taken back to Gaza as hostages, the Strip has been under total siege and deprived of basic necessities while facing a devastating bombing campaign by Israel.

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More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed and around 1.7m displaced, in what has been described at the International Court of Justice in January as a plausible genocide.

For months, protests have flared across Europe and the US with millions pouring onto the streets to call for a ceasefire, but in recent weeks universities have become a focal point for demonstrations partly because of their elite reputation.

School administrators in France have grappled with how to balance free speech against public safety, and last month, French President Emmanuel Macron, a Sciences Po alumnus, weighed in on an incident at one protest at the university.

Controversy erupted after pro-Palestinian protesters were accused of refusing a Jewish student access to a protest at an auditorium.

The French government was quick to react, with Macron and French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal condemning what they said was a blatant case of antisemitism.

But in a statement, Sciences Po's pro-Palestinian student organisation said "no student was prevented from entering the amphitheater because of their religious background" and that "those denied access were individuals known to have photographed and filmed pro-Palestinian students… putting them at great risk of online harassment."

Riot police deployed

In an interview with Le Parisien, the student - who had reportedly been denied access - said she had not heard anyone targeting her as a Zionist but that this had been reported to her by someone in the room.

She was eventually able to enter the auditorium, she added, but "only stayed a few minutes" as "the atmosphere was too heavy".

Students set up an encampment at the elite Sciences Po University in Paris before administrators called in police to break up the protest on 24 April 2024 (MEE/Sania Mahyou)
The encampment lasted just a few hours on 24 April 2024, before administrators at Sciences Po called in police (MEE/Sania Mahyou)

US campus protests erupted at Columbia University last week, with students staging a Vietnam war-style encampment inside the main building.

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On Friday, more than 100 people were arrested at Columbia, in the first such intervention for more than three decades.

Protests have since spread around the country, with hundreds of students staging an occupation at the University of Southern California and riot police involved in a tense stand-off in Texas.

Multiple Jewish students and organisations have launched legal actions against institutions for allegedly failing to combat antisemitism, while a number of Palestinian groups have also raised concerns over Islamophobia.

Critics of the crackdown on protests in the US say it violates the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees the right to free expression and the freedom of assembly.

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