Fed up French teachers stage 'historic' strike over school Covid rules

·5-min read

Some three-quarters of teachers in France are striking Thursday to vent their anger over the government's shifting rules on Covid testing for pupils. This comes amid growing frustration over what unions say is lack of support and unmanageable logistics in the face of surging Omicron infections.

Led by the Snuipp-FSU union, the largest strike among primary school teachers comes after the latest of several changes on testing and isolation requirements for potential Covid cases that were announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late Monday.

After seeing long lines of parents outside pharmacies and labs in recent days to test children in classes where a case was detected, Castex said three home tests could now be used to determine if a student could return to school, rather than an antigen or PCR done at a pharmacy or lab.

"This historic protest is not a strike against the virus but about how fed up we are in schools," the union wrote in a statement, slamming the "worsening working conditions" and "continual lies" from Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

Teachers say class disruptions have become unmanageable with the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant, especially since many parents remain unable to get vaccination appointments for children over five, available only since late December.

The union, joined by at least seven other unions, predicted that around half of French schools from primary to high school would be closed on Thursday.

One major parents' federation, the FCPE, has also called on parents to pull their children out of class to mark the day of protest.

'Daycare centres'

"Students cannot learn properly because attendance varies wildly, and a hybrid of in-house and distance learning is impossible to put in place," the Snuipp-FSU said, adding that absent teachers were not being replaced.

It is also demanding the government provide facemasks for staff, including the more protective FFP2 masks, and CO2 monitors to check if classrooms are sufficiently ventilated, pressing the government to provide "safer schools" to face the Omicron wave.

"Not only do existing protocols not protect students, staff or their families, they have completely disorganised schools," the union said, claiming that classes had effectively been turned into "daycare centres".

As of Monday more than 10,000 primary school classes – around 2 percent – had been shut nationwide because of Covid cases, according to the Education Ministry.

Blanquer said the government was doing everything possible to avoid outright school closures that could wreak havoc for parents and jeopardise learning for thousands, especially those from low-income families.

"I know there is a lot of fatigue, of anxiety ... but you don't go on strike against a virus," Blanquer told BFM television on Tuesday.

'Political backlash'

President Emmanuel Macron this week defended his decision to keep schools open, despite admitting there was "fatigue" among teachers and parents faced with ever-changing protocols.

He agreed the system was "not perfect" and called for "patience" and "pragmatism".

The topic has provided perfect fodder for opposition leaders across the spectrum, keen to point out the government's failings in dealing with the health crisis.

"Teachers are not 'giving up', as the President seems to think," far right National Rally leader and candidate Marine Le Pen told BFM TV on Tuesday, adding she "understood why they needed to strike".

"Four protocols changing every 48 hours is driving the parents and teachers crazy," she said, predicting the turnout at the strike would be huge.

"I think we should stop all that, stop watching kids crying when they have their tests," which she described as a form of "mistreatment", saying a temperature check would be less invasive.

On the right, the leader of the Senate for the Republicans Party, Gérard Larcher condemned what he described as a "mess", a sentiment echoed by several other conservative MPs.

Criticism also came from the left, with former Socialist minister and potential presidential candidate Christiane Taubira blasting Blanquer for his "contempt" for the strikers.

"Of course people don't strike against the virus, they strike against a minister who has done a bad job," she told the press.

Socialist Party member Boris Vallaud even went as far as to call for Blanquer to resign.

Avalanche of criticism

Valérie Rabault, president of the Socialists' group in parliament and spokesperson for Paris mayor and candidate Anne Hidalgo, predicted the strike would be massively followed and even compared it to the uprising that rocked the profession back in 1968.

"There is such a level of exasperation in the teaching sector trying to deal with all these instructions and counter instructions ... we're going to hit the wall," she said, adding she was 100 percent behind the mobilisation.

Meanwhile Blanquer called for "unity for schools" and to resist the urge to confuse subjects, referring to the political debate.

"It's a shame to see a day that will further upset the whole system," he said. "There are problems, I'm the first to admit that, it's difficult, but it's difficult for the whole country."

Faced with the avalanche of criticism, government spokesman Gabriel Attal defended the measures and called for "good sense" to prevail.

The union has warned that more protests would be organised if necessary.

"This anger is not just linked to the current issue, but is rooted in the incapacity and incompetence of the government to manage the health crisis globally in schools," the union said.

"It's also linked to the educational policies over the last five years that have ruined schools and shown contempt for teachers."

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