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We Occupy the Frontiers of the University to Defend Her

A critique of Paris 8 through a case study of its occupations in 2018

By Lucien Perrin and Lucie Marraffa

The Great Preaching of Hospitality

The French University thinks of itself as fundamentally “open” and performs as such. This “openness” historically took shape in the post-68 development of the politics of welcoming, which aimed to include audiences that had thus far been secluded due to their social vulnerabilities. As such, the University’s fundamental and radical openness, acquired during the second half of the 20th century, is tied to its pretense of being a space of unconditional welcoming. Indeed, the encounter of the ideal of emancipation and of this politics of welcoming would bring along a redefinition of the University. In this conception, the University would be a place for critical thought where all would be welcome, where the invisible and visible frontiers that structure our society would be challenged and deconstructed. Instead of being borders and separations, the frontiers would be blurred and resignified. Instituted partitions would become places of encounter, of crossing, places for the apparition of new “possibles”. Thanks to its location in the borderland – in Anzaldua’s conceptualization of borderlands: a place within the borders, at their intersection, where the act of kneading cleaved identities is both creative and deconstructive – the Open University becomes a space for emancipation. In other words, a privileged space for the questioning of borders and their crossing over. For all those whose identities are torn by borders, the University would be a place of subjectivation. Indeed, and as a result of this politics of welcoming combined with an ideal of emancipation, a certain liberty of crossing develops in the University; an increased agency is actualized. The University thus comes to think of itself as a privileged location for openness and emancipation.

Paris 8-Vincennes-Saint Denis, an heir to the Vincennes Experimental Center, is an emblem of this stance. The Vincennes Experimental Centre was founded in response to the student protest of May 68 and embodied their reclamation for what a University should be. In time, Vincennes’ heritage was transferred to Paris 8, which carried on its legacy, in Saint-Denis. Historically “open” to foreign and working-class students, Paris 8 has incidentally adopted “World University” as its slogan. The phrase goes along a set discourses and institutional devices that cater to people in vulnerable situations. The University thus has a well performing disability department which provides for the students with a disability, a University diploma for refugees and since recently allows those who wish, to sign up with their preferred names and pronouns. As such, Paris 8 presents itself as a place and community welcoming to its diverse users. This welcome and the diversity in the identities of the users that it allows for, contributed fully to the progressive image of the University and especially that of Paris 8.

Paris 8 University open to all, Also migrants and students.

However, this image is to be nuanced by taking into consideration certain dynamics that are gradually eroding the unconditionally open space that the University claims to be. Through a long process of toughening of its accessibility, the University increasingly closes in on itself, and reconducts within itself the borders that dissect society. Paris 8’s openness to the popular territories that surround it is only selective as can be seen in the decision to reinforce security on campus and to heighten the barriers that enclose the University. The bag checks at the entrance, a purely dissuasive measure, allow for a control of the bodies that enter its premises. The closure of the nursery and the kindergarten in 2002 excludes de facto numerous students who are in charge of young children. Its unconditional welcoming is also restricted by administrative constraints such as the possession of a high school diploma as a condition sine qua non for the access to University education, which was not the case in the Experimental Center of Vincennes. Events such as the adoption of the ORE law (1) and the refusal of the Paris 8 university presidency to publicly take a position against the law ‘Bienvenue en France(2), confirm the University’s anchoring in a national dynamic restricting the access to University to a certain – already privileged – part of the society.

This gradual enclosure comes along a slow yet methodical destruction of the politics of welcoming conquered in May 68 and radically questions the University’s capacity to actualize its emancipatory potential. These dynamics confirm what Derrida claimed in 2001 on the University without Condition: “This University without conditions does not, in fact, exist, as we know only too well. Nevertheless, in principle and in conformity with its declared vocation, its professed essence, it should remain an ultimate place of critical resistance and more than critical to all the powers of dogmatic and unjust appropriation.” (Derrida, 2002, p.26). In spite of this destruction of its historical achievements, Paris 8 continues, up to this day, to be a center for contestation, as the spring 2018 occupations have shown. And indeed, the contradictions of the politics of welcoming of the University were revealed by the occupations of the buildings A and B2 of Paris 8.

Map of the two occupations

The Occupations as Radical Critiques

I order to illustrate this, we will offer a look back at these occupations of Paris 8 during the spring of 2018. At first, a part of the A building of the University was occupied by the “exilé.e.s” (3) and their allies. This occupation lasted until June 26th, 2018, date of their expulsion by CRS (French anti-riot police). This occupation answered a double aim; that of opening a space where the exilé.e.s could spent the winter instead of sleeping outside, and that of creating a power struggle with the French institutions in order to obtain administrative regularization of all the Paris 8 occupants that would demand it. In parallel to this first occupation, a second one took place within the B2 building, from the beginning of April onwards, as part of the nationwide social movement against the ORE reform. Many of the occupants of the B building identified as queer and used the occupied University as a field for the theorization and exploration of queer identities. This second occupation died out on its own, with the arrival of the summer break, and resulted in the partial destruction of the facilities. The teaching staff and the administration judged the spaces unfit for use in the state in which they had been left by the occupants.

One could have expected, along the lines of Preciado’s reading of the similarity of border crossing between refugees and trans- people, that there would have been a merging of these two struggles on campus. Indeed, both conditions involve a crossing of borders, whether they be of gender or national ones. Yet, despite a true proximity, both geographically and socially (activism based and interpersonal connections between the occupants), a certain impermeability of these occupations remained and needs to be questioned.

That the two occupations did not converge could be a consequence of the fact that they did not share a common objective. Indeed, it meant different strategies for the struggle which also impacted the spatial organization of each occupation. While the exilé.e.s had their daily life concentrated on the University grounds (with sometimes up to 150 people present on the occupation), most of the occupants of the B2 had the possibility of going back to their homes. As a consequence of this difference, the living spaces were constructed differently. The difference is especially noticeable in the importance given to the dorms, rooms and private spaces in the occupation by the exilé.e.s. They reinvested classrooms as communal dorms which they then transformed into increasingly private rooms through the installation of fabric, tables and other materials to create separation and privacy. This process of nesting through the reinvestment of the University buildings and materials occurred much later and to a lesser extent in the process of the B2 occupation. When it did occur, it was particularly in the form of spaces of chosen mixity(4), particularly dorms – which were seen as preferable to individual rooms for security reasons. The repartition of sleeping places except from this communal dorm on the second floor was also much more scattered in the building and did not answer dynamics of trying to build a home. Instead of building dorms and private rooms from the start, the B2 occupants rather created spaces of debate, workshops and party.

Exilé.e.s’ food storage

A similar diverging process occurred with the modes of organization. The A occupation was structured around a core constituted of about forty activists and/or students fully involved over time. Regardless of this core’s inner divergences, this mode of organization made getting involved difficult for people who did not personally know any core member, or who did not have the possibility of being invested on the long term (such an investment was necessary for the follow-ups, the assistance with administrative files and meetings, as well as medical ones, and for strategic reflection). People outside of the core found themselves stranded in the position of merely punctual and/or material assistance. This polarization however also stemmed from the necessity of having a rapid circulation of information to face the occupier’s vital logistics problems, as well as the continuous risk of expulsion. Indeed, the A occupation was under the constant strain of a feeling of emergency that the B2 occupation possibly did not experience as such. Finally, this polarization was also due to the difficult communication with the exilé.e.s which de facto reinforced the centrality of the Arab or Amhara speakers. These dynamics partly explain the lack of investment by the people occupying the B2 building of the already existing A occupation. In contrast, the organization of the B2 was much less centralized, with, instead of a centralized group, a plurality of group and actors in relation – and often in conflict. The groups occupying the B building were either already established political parties, labour unions, autonomous organization or gatherings of miscellaneous non-affiliated people. The tensions between the groups and their conception of the ways in which the University should be occupied made common agreement difficult. The power relations were in constant reorganization and groups evolved over time, each focusing on a certain aspect of the occupation. The lack of oversight was at times problematic but also allowed for a plethora of different creative energies that resisted any centralization to be potentialised. These organizational difference are partly due to different questionings: while the B2 occupation saw an effervescence in the reflections concerning queer questions (a recurring practice in the University-based social movements of the last decade), the A occupation was rather faced with questions of strategies in order to best organize a political power struggle in order to obtain the administrative regularization of the occupants who wished for it. Queer questions thus remained marginal within the A building occupation, even though many of the allies present on the long run happened to identify as queer themselves.

“Non-mixity dormitory, without cis-hetero guys.

The separation between the two occupations can also be read from a spatialized view. The campus is split in two by a highway road. The A building is on one side of this road, the B on the other. The only ways to cross over are two bridges. On each side of the bridge, different materializations of the occupations took place, oscillating between construction and deconstruction of borders. While the first occupation was based on an attempt to organize to build – a power struggle, life spaces, a strategic base for fighting back, a relatively safe space, administrative files, relations, friendships, loves … – the second mainly obeyed logics of deconstruction – of the power plays within University and between the established political groups, of the essentialist gender identities within a cis-hetero-patriarchal society … This distinction also took shape in the modes of appropriation of the buildings. Both occupations were prolific tag producers but where the A building was reconfiguring the available spaces by building new life spaces, the B building was deconstructed, wall by wall (holes in walls and missing doors were somehow recurring problems in the B building). Here a tension appears between the reinvestment of frontiers as places of creation, and as borders to be crossed in an act of deconstruction – that only too easily shifts to destruction.

The separation between the two occupations was however not absolute. A certain complementarity and hence a porosity developed over time. Faced with the lack of calm spaces and opportunity for intimacy, some of the exilé.e.s took the habit of sleeping in the B2 building. Conversely, some of the B2 occupants brought their material and logistic support to the occupation of the A building, in the transport of materials and the preparation of meals for example. The exilé.e.s also participated in the parties organized by the B2 occupants, as the latter invited them to join. Finally, a notable solidarity occurred when the threat of expulsion by the police forces, authorized by the university presidency, became increasingly serious.

Entrance. “The selection is not so…”

Furthermore, their mere existence answered a similar dynamic of rupture. Such a rupture, by its tearing apart of the established order, allows for the appearance of the limits of the University’s “politics of welcoming”. Both occupations put the University’s claim to be unconditionally welcoming to the test and sought to what point the University would be “malleable”. This breakpoint offers a time of reflection, a space other than that dominated by the frontiers that divide society. As such, this rupture teared of frontier, revealing in its gap a world with a certain liberty of creation and where resignifying frontiers would finally be conceivable, a radical welcoming made possible. Within the two occupations, the walls were resignified: they no longer functioned as ways to separate knowledge shared within classrooms, but as spaces for the expression of another knowledge. The creativity of the tags in both occupation, as well as the work of the “Pink Committee” (whose main aim was – and still is – to paint the whole B2 in pink,) contributed to reinvest the critical space of the university and to give its back, to a certain extent, that which it is gradually eroding: its openness and its emancipatory potential.

The occupations overflowed of the administration by a welcoming that exceeded what its bureaucratic structure could allow, soon revealing a breakpoint in the bureaucratic approach of the occupation. Indeed, the presidency’s reaction was to propose an individualist, humanitarian and as such a depolitizing management of the occupations, especially concerning the exilé.e.s administrative files. In this perspective, the exilé.e.s’ paths appeared as individual paths without a relation to a certain political order instead of the plural manifestations of systemic and structural phenomenon that they are. The B2 occupation was not taken seriously by the presidency, who discredited it as an invasion of its buildings by non-students, and the creation of a deleterious atmosphere – in reference to the tags, drawings and paintings that covered the walls. Over the summer the building A and B2 were “repaired”, “sanitized” and neutralized to welcome students again in September. The methodical removal and erasure of all the traces of the occupation by the presidency too answers to a logic of depolitization of the occupation. As soon as the start of the next school year, the University proudly celebrated the 50th anniversary of its creation, without any reference to the events of the 2018 spring. Such a recuperation of the principles that underlie the Experimental Center of Vincennes in a move to revalorize the current University and to bury the memories of its recent occupation inevitably leads one to wonder: how much can Saint-Denis University still today call itself an open University, a space for emancipation? If the University claims to be fundamentally open and emancipatory, can it still pretend to a form of emancipation even though it is increasingly closing on itself? If emancipation happens to be its foundation, can the places in which we study today still carry the name “University”? Or yet, was Paris 8 more of a University when it was occupied and that its regular mode of operation was interrupted?

“It derails.”, “What would not be done for a salary?”

Rethinking the University from its Borders

The dynamics that determined the reaction of the University presidency in the face of the occupations are to be read in the broader context of the erosion of the welcoming capacities of the French University. The inclusion of the Habermassian concepts of “colonization of the lifeworld” and of the “demise of the public sphere” in our reasoning allows for a lecture of these developments as part of a general trend that introduces neoliberal logics of productivity, of profit and individualism in University; a true functionalization of University is occurring. A succession of laws reinforcing the borders controlling the entries in the country, in the high schools, in universities participate to this erosion of the political sphere, on a national level. Indeed, the University should play a fundamental role in the political development of a country, as being a space for informal discussion on topics of shared importance. In this sense, the University would be a public sphere in Habermas’ view.

On an architectural plane, this expresses itself in the lack of spaces of communal life on University campuses, which stifles the appearance of spaces of day-to-day political discussions. To a certain extent, the occupations allowed for the reintroduction of this public sphere within University. Thus, during the GAs, and throughout the day, the occupiers of both buildings were facing decisions necessitating political reflection. Between practical questions of justice, feminism, queerness, anti-racism, ecology, … the occupiers were confronted to the necessity of critical thinking and communal discussion in order to reach shared decisions. These attempts were not always fruitful and the decisions and disagreements within each occupation did not help. But, after all, is this not precisely the sign of a return of the politics and of the public sphere? Wouldn’t it be in this liberty of speaking that Derrida too found his vision of the University?

The papers for .TE.S. The call of the occupants .e.s of Paris 8. Gathering in front of Bobigny prefecture, Friday 13 April, 15 hours.

I say “University” because I am distinguishing stricto sensu, the University from all research institutions that are in the service of economic goals and interests of all sorts, without being granted in principle the independence of the University; I also say “without condition” to let one hear connotation of “without power” and “without defense”.

(Derrida, 2001, p. 27-28)

This comment by Derrida allows for an appreciation of the extent to which the definition of a space such as the University is questioned by its becoming at the service of interests different from those it defends as a space for emancipation. To this he further adds:

This limit of the impossible, the “perhaps,” and the “if,” this is the place where the University exposes itself to reality, to the outside forces (be they cultural, ideological, political, economic, or other). There, the University is in the world that it attempts to think. On this frontier, it must therefore negotiate and organize its resistance. And take its responsibilities. Not in order to enclose itself and reconstitute the abstract phantasm of sovereignty whose theological or humanist heritage it will perhaps have begun to deconstruct, if at least it has begun to do so. But in order to resist effectively, by allying itself with extra-academic forces, in order to organize an inventive resistance, through its oeuvres, to all attempts at re-appropriation (political, juridical, economic, and so forth), to all the other figures of sovereignty.

(Derrida, 2001, p. 65-66)

The remobilization of the term “frontier” by Derrida sheds light on the particular position that the University occupies in their face. The University is both grappling with a world crossed by frontiers and a reverberation within her. But it is also set at the frontier, the borderland between this world and the world it could be, an emancipatory world. And it is just this situation in a borderland that makes the University open. Or rather, it is by opening the frontiers it harbors within itself that the University is ever becoming emancipatory. If the questioning of the societal frontiers as set up by the University is shown to be infructuous in contrast to what the occupations have allowed for, should the ideal of emancipation of the University be re-thought? Instead of establishing itself as a place of welcome, why couldn’t the University destitute itself, in order to better seek for itself in all the places of the society that could welcome it? Derrida does not say any different when he writes the following statement(5):

The University without condition does not necessarily, nor exclusively situate itself within the enclosure of what we nowadays call a University. […] It takes place, it seeks for its place everywhere where this unconditionality can announce itself enclosure of what we nowadays call a University. […] It takes place, it seeks for its place everywhere where this unconditionality can announce itself.

(Derrida 2001, p. 78)


1. The ORE law: Law targeting the “Orientation and Success of the Students”, reforming the conditions of access to French University by allowing the universities to select and order the applicants, instead of a system affecting spots based on an algorithm. This law increases the inequalities in the selection of the candidates depending on their social and geographical origins.

2. The “Bienvenue en France” law: The governmental plan “Welcome to France” forecasts a tenfold multiplication of registration fees for non-EU students, starting September 2019. This plan is criticized as a racist and elitist measure, in total rupture with the principle of equality of access to public services.

3. Exilé.e.s: the use of the term “exilé.e.s” (with the dots to signify that it does not only include men) had been chosen over “migrants” as the latter is often tied to and restrained to an “economic migration” in the French media, thereby negating the interconnectedness of the causes of migrations, and the fact that these are too often incurred. As this choice was emblematic for the occupation of the A building, we decided to leave it in French in this text as well.

4. Spaces of chosen mixity: spaces whose access is restricted to different groups, depending on the situation (only cis-men were not allowed, or only cis-hetero men were not allowed).

5. The English version of the text does not have this quote. The translation is by the authors of this text. The original reads as follows: “L’université sans condition ne se situe pas nécessairement, ni exclusivement, dans l’enceinte de ce qu’on appelle aujourd’hui l’université. [..] Elle a lieu, elle cherche son lieu partout où cette inconditionnalité peut s’annoncer.” (Derrida 2001 p.78)


  • Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (2013). Mille plateaux: Capitalisme et schizophrénie, 2. Minuit.
  • Derrida, J. (2001). The Future of the Profession or the University without Condition (thanks to the ‘Humanities. what could take place tomorrow).’
  • Jacques Derrida and the Humanities: A Critical Reader. Ed. Tom Cohen. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 24-57.
  • Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action (Vol. 2). Beacon press.
  • Paul B. Preciado, « Identité en transit », Libération, 27 mai 2016, [consulted the 26th of February 2019].

About the Authors

Lucien Perrin from France, is a Master 2 in Philosophy at Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis. After successfully rounding off a bachelors in Political Sciences at Paris 8, Lucien is currently finishing his second year as a Master student in philosophy in the same university. He is conducting research on political philosophy, studying the Levinassian concept of “visage” in a de-colonial and queer perspective.

Lucie Marraffa is a French-Dutch citizen, and a Master 2 in Philosophy at Paris 8, Vincennes-Saint-Denis. Currently in her second year as a philosophy Master student at Paris 8, Lucie is conducting research on the emancipatory power of art – specifically Aimé Césaire’s work and the materialization of its puissance. She obtained her bachelors in Liberal Arts and Sciences from University College Maastricht (Netherlands).

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