Teachers in France stage massive walkout over Covid confusion

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Large numbers of French teachers went on strike on Thursday, with the biggest teachers’ union saying half of primary schools were closed as staff demanded clarification from the government on coronavirus measures.

As France’s presidential election campaign begins ahead of the April vote, the walkout is embarrassing for President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which has bragged about keeping schools open to ease pressure on parents during the pandemic.

While the Department for Education said almost 40% of primary school teachers had walked off the job, main union SNUipp put the figure at 75% with one in two primary schools closed for the day.

The strike “demonstrates the growing desperation in schools,” SNUipp said in a statement Tuesday announcing the strike.

They complain that their members are unable to teach properly, are not adequately protected against coronavirus infection, and frequently hear about changes in health precautions through the media rather than from superiors.

“The government is announcing things, but no one is thinking about what it means for the staff on the ground,” Olivier Flipo, principal of a Parisian school, told AFP this week.

“They ask us hellish things and it all goes to the dogs.”

With many students sick and struggling to combine distance learning with in-person classes, “it’s not the school that’s open, but a kind of ‘daycare,'” SNUipp said.

Some parents interviewed by AFP in the street supported the strike.

“I understand the teachers and their position… the classes are too big, they are not paid enough, their working conditions are not the best,” Akim Aouchiche told a school in northeastern Paris.

“It’s their way of being heard,” said tax adviser Alexandra Stojek.

“I understand what they are asking, it is justified, they are not doing this to disturb us.”

Crisis management “Until now, public opinion thought that the government and President Emmanuel Macron had managed the crisis well,” Brice Teinturier of the Ipsos polling institute told AFP.

But if there is a significant disruption to the strike, “that balance is likely to shift”, he added.

Opponents of Macron’s presidential election seized on the walkout, with far-left and socialist candidates Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Anne Hidalgo joining the marchers in Paris.

Acting far-right National Rally party leader Jordan Bardella said the strike showed “the problem is first and foremost Emmanuel Macron”.

Motivated by long queues for tests outside pharmacies, the government this week relaxed rules on Covid checks for students who have been exposed to an infected person, with Prime Minister Jean Castex announcing the changes Monday night news.

“We listened and made changes,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal told reporters after a cabinet meeting on Wednesday, acknowledging the “weariness” of parents and teachers.

The change in the chain of command appeared to be a reaction to teachers’ anger towards Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.

But Blanquer did not back down from harsh rhetoric, saying on television on Tuesday that “we are not going on strike against a virus”.

AFP

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