A GIANT banner at the entrance to the University of Nanterre advertises official events to commemorate the May ’68 student uprising. There are seminars on “counterculture” and “revolutions”, and a conference on the intersection between art and politics. Around the corner, past partially obscured graffiti reading “Macron we’re going to hang you”, today’s generation is staging its own historical tribute to the soixante-huitards. Inside an amphitheatre blockaded by a pile of chairs and upturned tables, over a thousand students are voting to continue a sit-in. Fifty years on, as the country looks back at one of its most iconic post-war moments, the lines between history, drama, politics and art feel strangely blurred.

The 1968 events first broke out on the Nanterre campus, in an unfashionable suburb west of Paris, before spreading to the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, or Dany the Red, led a student occupation, partly in protest at dormitory rules outlawing male visitors to female dormitories. But it was the prospect of selection at entry for undergraduates that set off the wider rebellion. This reform never took place. Half a century on, students are resisting a new challenge to their right to sign up for any degree they like.

“Equality of access to university is a right,” declares a student at Nanterre, on her way to the amphitheatre to vote. Ever since Napoleon devised the school-leaving baccalauréat as an entrance ticket to university, all those who pass it can apply for any undergraduate course, regardless of their suitability. So a student who has not studied the maths-heavy bac ‘S’ (for “scientific”) can nonetheless enroll for a maths degree. The result is overcrowded amphitheatres, and a high drop-out rate. Jean-Michel Blanquer, the education minister, points out that a staggering 70% of undergraduates fail to complete their degree within three years.

A new application process, put in place this year under President Emmanuel Macron, makes a small but important change. For the first time, universities have access to a pupil’s school reference, and will be able both to assess their suitability and make offers conditional on ill-prepared applicants’ agreeing to take catch-up courses. As far as selection goes, it is minimal. But many students suspect it is the start of an insidious slide towards Anglo-American-style selection. “The government refuses to use the word selection because it knows it’s illegal,” claims one at Nanterre.

Similar sit-ins have taken place at over a dozen campuses. Riot police have been sent in to evacuate some. Resistance has spread to unlikely corners. Students at Sciences Po last month staged a sit-in against selection out of “solidarity”. Sciences Po is a highly selective grande école—a university for the elite, to which the rules for the masses do not apply. “Here are trained those who select” read a banner. Some critics of the new procedure point less to the principle than to the stealth. Mr Macron is usually upfront about his reforms. Yet the government has not explicitly used the incendiary word “selection”. “The process will de facto involve selection,” argues Marc Ivaldi of the Toulouse School of Economics, but “it is hidden selection, and this is why it’s a bad law.”

Back at Nanterre, surrounded by so many historical echoes of 1968, the talk is all about continuing the struggle. Mr Macron, who himself studied philosophy at Nanterre, is not popular here, at least among those protesting. But he does not look ready to cede ground. And it will not have passed students by that one of those who backed him for president last year was none other than a fellow Nanterre alumnus, Mr Cohn-Bendit.