The Paradox in French Student Life: Insecurity in Insurance

The main square before the Sorbonne, Paris. Photo: georgemoga

The main square before the Sorbonne, Paris. Photo: georgemoga

On 12 December 2012, a report was published by a group of French senators who, “regularly questioned by families on the malfunctions” of the social security system for students (which provides health insurance, among other things), sought to “suggest emergency measures to simplify a system that suffers from a ludicrous complexity.” Beyond the short-term perspective, the senators suggested either a sweeping restructuring of the system, or the more straightforward end of a separate system for students.

This report gives credit to complaints that for a long time were dismissed as just another case of impatient customers complaining about the unavoidable marginal failures within an otherwise effective system. That time, it appears, is over.

In 1948, a health insurance system specific to students was created and was handled until 1972 by a single institution, the Mutuelle Nationale des Étudiants de France (MNEF). This institution was created by the Union Nationale des Étudiants de France (UNEF), a left-wing student union and the strongest in France. To counter what gradually began to appear a monopoly, regional structures were authorized to compete with it. Nevertheless, in 2000, a scandal at the upper echelons of the MNEF led to the reorganization of the whole system, culminating in the creataion of La Mutuelle Des Étudiants (LMDE).

Early intentions were good: the system was meant to be directed by a president, elected by a body of student representatives. Of course, the first president chosen was independent from the student unions. Nevertheless, using its almost unquestioned influence and alleged pressure, the UNEF took the absolute control of the LMDE.

As a result, the only remaining option for students to get health insurance is through a gathering of regional groups brought together in the emeVia network. Is it a sign of fair competition? Not exactly.

Indeed, every year students are faced with an alternative that does not look like a real choice. Students hired by both organizations meet at the beginning of the year to present their side of the so-called choice, praising the extraordinary accomplishments of their own organization while deriding the only opponent there is. As result, as Florian Mathieu, a young activist in a far-left student union, considers, “it’s not a real choice. In general, people choose it randomly,” when they yield to what he calls “harassment” during registration.

This is a well-rehearsed show. Students, for their part, sometimes feel like the fools in this game, since after their very first year they tend to think that both sources of insurance are ultimately failures. Having to wait months for much-needed refunds is a common problem among students, along with an acknowledgement that both systems are in general too slow and costs are too high. All of these issuses the Senate report recognized and strongly condemned.

Florian lists all those problems, and recounts his own experience of waiting on a refund for glasses costing around 400 euros for six months. His optician understood his problem, being fully aware, as many other health specialists are, that students are often in trouble with their insurance. That’s why he granted him some delay, but Florian felt uncomfortable making him wait so long and eventually paid. He still awaits his refund.

The many troubles and general inefficiency of the system at large stand in stark contrast to its foundational principle. According to the senators, “Whereas the creation of a dedicated system was meant to make students independent, its incredible complexity actually renders the learning of the health insurance system that was hoped for impossible.” The worse thing is that despite the division between two main organizations, the price is the same, and the refund rate is totally equal. Since they can’t look elsewhere, students tend to keep their insurance plans, no matter how poorly they work.

Florian commented on the Senate report, believing, like the stance of his student union, Solidaires-Étudiants, that the whole system should be rethought. He wants the separate student health insurance to merge with the general system of social security. According to him, and a report from the journal UFC-Que Choisir, a new system could save millions of euros. Florian also condemned the “hegemony” the UNEF union has over health insurance, which prevents any other groups from taking part in decision making.

Florian sees only sad prospects for the future. Asked if he felt that the government was tackling the issues the students are facing, he said firmly, “absolutely not,” regretting the inaction on the part of Geneviève Fioraso, Minister for Higher Education.

More generally, Florian acknowledged that French students, compared to those in many countries such as Great Britain and the U.S., had an easier life and were “privileged.” He stressed, however, the fact that systems are different; that scholarships worked differently in the U.S., for instance.

Florian added that American students were often obliged to take loans, a trend French students are increasingly forced to follow, something he deeply regrets. While tuitions in France may be lower, French students are faced with an erratic system, relatively poor studying conditions and not enough guidance to make the best of their studies. A thorny insurance system is just the tip of the iceberg.

What Florian highlights is true. Student conditions in France, a nation of prestigious universities, are worsening. In a world in crisis, with narrow prospects for the future and high unemployment rates for the young in general, students seem forgotten in France just as in many countries.


  1. I judge this is a historical uppercase article move.Thanks Again. Rattling Eager.

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