When students despair, France addresses the situation of the “lost generation” of the pandemic

France is encrypting to address the difficulty and isolation experienced by students whose university years have been hijacked by the Covid-19 pandemic, with unions describing the government’s recent measures as too little, too late.

Aïssa, a bright young Senegalese student, arrived in France two years ago knowing that she would carry her family’s hopes and ambitions.

“When your parents are far away, you learn to live with the press to succeed,” she says in an interview with FRANCE 24. Like many students, both French and foreign, Aïssa knew she would have to work to cover fees, rent. and other expenses. She did not expect a global pandemic to throw up her plans.

Last spring, the student lost his job due to Covid-19 locking. She found another who was preparing online orders in a supermarket, but the meager salary meant that she could no longer afford the high tuition fees at her technical school in Marseille. So she dropped out and moved to Paris, where she enrolled for a cheaper master’s degree in economics, at the Sorbonne University.

“At first I lived with a friend of a friend, who made me sleep on the floor and expected me to cook and clean,” she recalls. “Another young man saw my request for help on Facebook and offered to set me up. But he soon asked for sexual services in return, so I ran away immediately. ”

Thanks to student associations and social workers at the university, Aïssa now has a room in social housing – a huge relief, “even though it is difficult to study when you are housed in a single room all day,” she says. She has also found a job caring for disabled children at a local primary school, but she is still tough.

“I have applied for housing benefits, because I can barely pay the rent with the little money I earn,” she says. “If my application is rejected, I will soon be too ill to buy food.”

To be 20 in 2020

Such stories of difficulty, loneliness and insecurity become all too familiar to students in adulthood, whose university years and future ambitions are cut by the pandemic.

With French universities in limbo among the latest recurrence of Covid-19 infections, alarm bells are ringing over the social, psychological and academic consequences of months of lockdowns, curfews and online tuition for students housed in cramped housing that many can not afford.

French President Emmanuel Macron described their situation in October, saying it was “difficult to be 20 by 2020”. Others have spoken of a “lost” or “sacrificed” generation, which is regretted by disrupted studies and uncertain job prospects and deprived of chills.

UNEF, France’s leading student body, has warned of the “extreme fragility” of students across the country. It cited a study by Nightline, a student helpline, according to which as many as 22% of students seeking help have had suicidal thoughts.

In a study conducted in the wake of France’s first nationwide lockdown, the state-appointed National Observatory of Student Life (OVE) noted a 50 percent increase in the number of students presenting “signs of mental distress.”

“It is very rare to record such a large increase, and one can only assume that the situation has deteriorated significantly since then,” said observatory director Feres Belghith in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Belghith said women, foreign students and those experiencing financial hardship were disproportionately affected. “The pandemic has proved particularly challenging for foreign students deprived of their financial and psychological support,” he explained.

The distress experienced by many students made shocking headlines last week after a student jumped from the fourth floor of his university residence in the eastern city of Lyon. He remains in a critical condition. Days later, a fellow student at a nearby university was detained after threatening to jump out of her window.

By writing on Facebook shortly after the first suicide attempt, Romain Narbonnet, a classmate of the student at the hospital, emphasized the “social isolation” that students experienced. He also questioned the decision to keep schools open while universities were closed.

“We are locked up around the clock in rooms that are no bigger than prison cells […]. How much can a student endure? Asked Narbonnet. “It is important to keep schools open, but somehow universities and students are of secondary importance. The truth is that we have left the road. ”

Student anger

On Wednesday, thousands of students gathered across France to urge the university campus to reopen. Many asked to return to the rotating system that was in place before the country’s second nationwide lockdown, where students switched between online and classroom instruction.

During a protest in Paris, UNEF President Mélanie Luce said lessons should be opened to “all students”, even if it meant recruiting more teachers to hold the lesson twice with reduced groups. “We think the government does not understand the extent of the situation,” she added.

Students have been furious for several months about what they perceive as the government’s neglect of their situation, while some ministers’ excursions have only aroused anger.

Last week, the Minister of Higher Education, Frédérique Vidal, provoked outrage by arguing that “the problem is not giving lessons in lecture halls, but the student going for a coffee break, the sweet left on a table or a sandwich with friends in the cafeteria.”

The “sweet left on a table” quip immediately went viral on social media. Many saw it as a sign of the contempt with which they have been treated throughout the pandemic – first designated as a virus spreader and then limited to the loneliness of their rooms, even though schools are kept open to ensure parents can return to work.

“It was not so long ago that we were blamed for the spread of the pandemic. Now we are treated like children who can not resist picking up a sweet on a table, “read an open letter written by several students and posted on Twitter with the hashtag #GhostStudents. “After months of pandemics, the motivation seems to be to keep universities closed resting on a collective inability to eat a sandwich properly,” the letter added.

Macron’s olive branch

Students at the French university – or facs, as they are commonly called – also fumble over long-standing inequalities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, some of them specific to the French model. While students are excluded from university campuses, their peers who take so-called “prépas” (or preparatory) classes – the traditional way of enrolling in one of France’s elite écoles – have no such restrictions.

“This violation of gender equality does not seem to bother [higher education] Minister or Prime Minister “, the French newspaper Le Monde wrote in a scathing editorial earlier this month, noting that Prime Minister Jean Castex did not have” a word for higher education “at a major press conference on pandemic measures.

Ministers have since tried to make amends, and Castex stressed last week that the students’ difficulties are “a major concern for the government” and Vidal announced that first-year students would begin returning to the university in “small groups” from January 25.

On Thursday, Macron announced further action during a visit to Paris-Saclay University south of Paris. He said students would be allowed to return to campus one day a week, provided lecture halls and classrooms do not exceed 20% capacity.

“A student should have the same rights as a worker,” the French president said when asked questions from a handful of students present. “If he needs to, he could return to university one day a week.”

Macron said he would ensure that all students have access to meals for one euro twice a day at the university’s cafeterias, some of which are open for meals. He promised a mechanism to ensure that students have access to psychological support free of charge.

However, Macron warned that there would be no “return to normal” before the start of the next school year. He added: “I will be honest with you, the coming weeks will be quite difficult.”

‘We do not walk quietly’

Thursday’s announcements were largely welcomed by the representative body of the French university president, who hoped to offer students “a measure of stability in the medium term”.

But Macron’s actions alone are unlikely to dampen anger, nor do they eliminate students’ anxiety.

Students queue to receive food aid package during a distribution by the French charity Secours Populaire in Strasbourg, eastern France, December 12, 2020. © Frédérick Florin, AFP

The meals for one euro “are a step in the right direction, but they are six months late,” said Maryam Pougetoux, UNEF’s deputy director, emphasizing “the difference between the urgency of the situation and the government’s late action”.

Pougetoux states that the measure will be of little use to the many students who have left university housing because they could not afford the rent and thus are no longer close to student cafes. She also flagged the fact that the meals will be available “on request”, a vague wording that suggests the kind of procedure hook that makes French universities so difficult to navigate – especially for foreign students.

Macron’s announcements are “a sign of the government’s strategy to make temporary announcements aimed at certain people but not addressing the broader issues,” Pougetoux told FRANCE 24. “The result is a series of small actions that give students no visibility. the next months. ”

UNEF’s deputy chief says a € 1.5 billion ($ 1.8 billion) emergency plan is needed to “respond to both the current emergency and implement structural reforms”. The plan would mean an immediate increase in subsidies and help with paying for housing.

“Just a few days ago, Castex said universities would only reopen for some freshmen, and now Macron has paved the way for others to return as well,” said Pougetoux, whose recent concessions are proof that students are finally getting their message across. . She adds: “The government is beginning to understand that we will not go silent.”