The French Student Movement
This chapter attempts to apply an historical perspective to the analysis of the French student movement since 1900. 1 It concentrates on the history of the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France (UNEF). The UNEF is not the only channel for French students' political action. Indeed, it is constitutionally non-political, although this has come to mean that it is not affiliated with any political party rather than not concerned with political issues. Until recently, the UNEF was by far the most influential student organization in the French political sphere.
The rise of a national organization of French students expressing a sense of collective identity is a relatively new phenomenon in France. In 1877 the first local student organization (Association d'Étudiants) was founded— that is, the first organization in which "studenthood" was the only criterion for membership as opposed to the previous organizations, which recruited on the basis of religious or political affiliation. By 1900, such non-political and non-religious student associations existed in all French university towns. In 1907 these associations were federated in a single "National Union" of students which marks the birth of the Union Nationale des Etudiants de France. Until the end of World War I, however, the UNEF played no significant role on campus or in society.
The pre-World War I student population was a very small elite (29,000 in 1900). Students came almost exclusively from the upper bourgeoisie and prepared themselves for professional careers which were assured them.