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For France’s People’s University, knowledge is power

CAEN, France (AFP) ― The People’s University in the northern French town of Caen is no ivory tower for the elite. Radical philosopher Michel Onfray set it up for those who were “programmed” to let education pass them by.

The lectures regularly attract about 1,000 students, among them the jobless and employed, youngsters just getting started in life and those already retired.

What they have in common is a thirst for knowledge for its own sake since there is no recognized degree or qualification on offer at Onfray’s Universite Populaire (UP).

The university offers everything from architecture to economics ― there is even a specially tailored philosophy course for children.

From modest beginnings 10 years ago, it has made its mark.

“It’s extraordinary,” says retired teacher Jean-Pierre, a regular student at the weekly two-hour lectures and discussions, who was in at the beginning.

He recalls the early days when the university attracted around 200 people in a modest auditorium: now they are packed into in a hall that struggles to hold five times that number. Screens relay lectures to students seated outside.

For Jean-Pierre, the courses are a lifeline: they keep him young and sharp, he says.

The car pool system set up on the UP website suggests there are plenty of equally committed followers: it shows people coming from as far as Paris, 220 kilometers to the south; and Lorient, 270 kilometers to the west.

Onfray, 53, launched the Universite Populaire in 2002, the year Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front party reached the second round of the presidential election in France.

Le Pen had eliminated the socialist candidate in a result that sent shockwaves through France and beyond. He may have been roundly beaten in the run-off by Jacques Chirac, but Le Pen’s popularity rang alarm bells for Onfray.

The university, said Onfray, “starts from the principle that if people are racists it’s because of a lack of culture.”

When he launched the UP he also quit his job teaching in the mainstream education system. Now the prolific author lives off the sales of his books, dozens of them, which have been published in more than 25 countries.

His works include an alternative history of philosophy, and attacks on psychoanalysis in general ― and Freudianism in particular ― that landed him at the centre of a particularly vitriolic debate in France.

“Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam,” is one of his works that has been translated into English.

But the UP is not a one-man show: about 20 other academics also offer their services, lecturing on everything from ancient music to mathematics.

And the idea has caught on, with similar universities springing up in other French cities including Lyon and Grenoble.

“The measure of success is for me most of all in the emails that I receive from people who like me were sociologically programmed to pass by philosophy and who say to me ‘You’ve changed my life,’” says Onfray.

The people he has in mind are those from a working class background like himself: he said he was “programmed to be a worker at the dairy” in his village.

Social pressures conspire to discourage certain people from tapping into their intellectual potential, Onfray argues.

“At the moment everything is done to say to people ‘You are not intelligent. Let the experts handle it,’” he says.

“Here, we say ‘The experts, most of the time, are talking out of the back of their head. Tackle these questions and you will be saying things that are a lot more interesting.’”

Pascale, a 48-year-old from a science background currently seeking work, says she values the lectures because they help her feel less excluded.

“That has helped me live my life from day to day. When you are on the margins, you run up against a lack of understanding,” she said, referring to her jobless status.

She said felt very close to Onfray’s thinking. “He finds the words where I don’t have them.”

Maurice, a retired rail worker, also finds the courses liberating, in part because a regular feature of the lectures is that they make frequent references to current affairs.

“It allows us to reflect, to have an opinion on a number of problems that currently confront us,” he says.

As well as Freud-bashing and atheism, Onfray’s philosophy also takes in hedonism and libertarian, even anarchist, thinking. In the run-up to France’s presidential election this year he backed left-winger Arnaud Montebourg’s failed bid for the socialist candidacy.

But Onfray’s controversial ideas have earned him enemies among the intellectual establishment ― and even some former allies.