PARIS: One of France's most prestigious universities was forced to shut Thursday after student protesters staged a campus occupation against government plans to make higher education more competitive.
The Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris is the latest of numerous universities across France to face sit-ins against President Emmanuel Macron's shake-up of the education system.
Coming just as undergraduates begin their summer exams, the sit-ins have caused major disruption, including in Strasbourg where protesters blocked 700 language students from sitting a test Thursday, prompting an angry standoff with security guards.
At present, anyone who graduates from high school is guaranteed a place at a public university, but Macron's government wants to introduce more selective criteria to tackle overcrowding and high dropout rates.
Protesters say the plan is an attack on France's egalitarian tradition of offering a public higher education to all.
But Prime Minister Edouard Philippe expressed amusement at the idea of students at the "Normale Sup'" in Paris -- part of a separate tier of highly selective top universities known as "grandes ecoles" -- joining the movement.
"It's quite charming, given the extremely selective nature of the Ecole Normale Superieure," he said.
Founded during the French Revolution, the Normale Sup' counts giants of French philosophy including Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault among its alumni.
All classes were cancelled and riot police could be seen outside the campus Thursday after protesters -- several dozen, according to students -- began their sit-in following a meeting on Wednesday night.
Graffiti-smeared campuses -
Photos taken by students before the campus shutdown showed graffiti daubed across corridors and smashed doors, scenes similar to those at other university sit-ins in recent weeks.
Even a memorial to Normale Sup' staff and students who died in World War I was scrawled with anti-police graffiti, prompting widespread anger on social media.
The occupiers included students and alumni as well as some outsiders, according to students at the scene.
The government has accused anarchist groups of infiltrating the protest movement.
Three of France's 73 public universities are currently blocked completely -- in the cities of Toulouse and Rennes as well as the Paris suburb of Nanterre -- though this is down from around 15.
Some faculty buildings at other universities also remain occupied.
In the northeastern city of Nancy, police scuffled with around 30 students trying to block an amphitheatre at the arts and social sciences campus where students were due to take an exam on Thursday.
The student protests have added to a mood of discontent in France among various groups opposed to Macron's reforms.
Thursday saw the latest of a wave of strikes launched in early April by rail workers protesting against Macron's planned overhaul of state operator SNCF.
But the train strikes, like the student protests, have lost some steam in recent weeks, with the scale of the disruption easing.
Half of high-speed and suburban trains ran on Thursday, up from around an eighth at the beginning of the walkouts. A similar level of disruption is expected in fresh strikes Friday.