Translator’s note: Streets in cities across France filled with teachers and other school staff, along with parents and students, as tens of thousands of education workers went on strike to demand better Covid-19 testing and protections for pupils and staff, consistency of health protocols, and more money for depleted schools. “We had reached such a level of exasperation, tiredness, and anger that we didn’t have any other option but to organize a strike to send a strong message to the government,” one union leader told Reuters.
The backdrop to the strike: a record-setting surge in Covid-19 infections, with nearly 370,000 new daily cases, and school staff and parents “fed up” with responsibility for testing and contact tracing falling to them as the government keeps schools open to serve the needs of France’s capitalists, who want workers on the job and not at home tending to children.
As the one-day strike action came to a close, France’s education minister announced that the government “would provide 5 million FFP2 masks and hire 3,300 contract workers” for the public schools, as reported by Euronews.
The strike, though, is only a beginning, as the following article from the day before the strike makes clear. A nationwide movement that brings together self-organized education, health, and social workers is on the agenda to secure what is truly needed to ensure the health and safety of French students, their families, education workers, and indeed the entire French working class.
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Two days before a scheduled nationwide strike by teachers, staff, and students in France’s national public education system, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the French Minister of National Education, declared, “One does not strike against a virus.” His remarks added fuel to the fire of a new school year that has turned into a health crisis. Teachers, supported by parents, have refused to continue to operate their classrooms under the conditions imposed by the government, and the union leaderships were pushed to call a national school strike for Thursday, January 13.
Supporters of Révolution Permanente, the sister publication of Left Voice in France, made clear that the objective had to be to create the widest possible mobilization in the streets, but also in union general assemblies that could then be connected with other sectors in motion. The call went out to create a battle plan for the struggle that would allow for imposing an alternative to the government’s plans.
Omicron Creates a Chaotic Start to the School Year
The first week of the new school year was marked by crisis, with record levels of infections in the schools. Four days after the beginning of the school year on January 6, French public schools already had more than 9,000 classes shut down, and nearly 6,000 staff members were sick with Covid-19. The catastrophic situation can only get worse given Omicron’s contagiousness and, in particular, the absence of protective protocols in the schools to stop its spread.
After two years of the pandemic, France has failed to equip schools with CO2 sensors and air purifiers, or even to provide staff with FFP2 masks. On the contrary, as 2,700 teachers and staff made clear in an open letter that draws the balance sheet of five years of Blanquer and the government of President Emmanuel Macron:
Despite the deterioration of the health situation, the Minister keeps diminishing the existing health protocols, knowingly exposing staff, students, and families to the virus: no longer providing any masks in some departments; allowing conditions to deteriorate, leading to the closure of classes; cutting back on the rules governing isolation … The current wave is a sign of how this insufficient prevention has failed.
The health crisis reveals, quite brutally, the consequences of austerity policies that have destroyed public services and led to increasing precariousness for workers. In the schools, the combination of fewer staff and less resources have made it much more difficult to implement a health strategy that could actually preserve health in schools.
Worse still, Minister Blanquer’s brand new protocol, published in the press the day before the start of the school year, actually was to ease existing health protocols. The new measures are aimed at “whatever it takes” to keep schools open, and puts the burden on parents to arrange for testing and conduct contact tracing. That quickly became unmanageable not only for parents, but also for pharmacies overwhelmed by the demand for tests as the number of infections multiplied.
This “open school” policy, far from addressing any pedagogical concerns, is a central part of the government’s strategy to keep the economy open at any cost. Schools must remain “open” — even if classrooms are sometimes largely empty — so parents can go to work. As such, the policy is playing its role as the daycare center for MEDEF, the French employer’s association. It creates a catastrophic situation that is amplifying the health crisis and accelerating the spread of the Omicron variant.
Widespread Anger Has Fueled Spontaneous Mobilizations
With such a level of crisis, there have been a number of spontaneous mobilizations since the school year began, particularly in the Île-de-France region, which includes Paris. Two schools in particular in the 93rd department, Seine-Saint-Denis, have spearheaded the movement, and it was in the 93rd that general assemblies were held that brought together protesters from multiple venues. There were also spontaneous mobilizations in the 95th (Val-d’Oise) and 77th (Seine-et-Marne) departments in Île-de-France.
The multifaceted mobilizations included parents blockading schools and using their right to withdraw their children for safety reasons, as well as local strikes. They were marked by an alliance between parents and education workers that crystallized in the form of going on the offense and making demands that spoke to health needs in schools and for making massive investments in resources for education.
There were pushes at the local level to turn this offense into a more generalized mobilization, and particularly to converge with caregivers and social workers who were planning a strike on Tuesday, January 11. Education workers in the 93rd and 95th departments, and others in Toulouse, called for strike actions that day.
The fact that multiple education unions have come together with health workers and parents is all the more important given the government’s efforts to sweep the situation in hospitals under the rug, refusing to provide any additional resources despite the acute health crisis with nearly no hospital beds available. What the public hospital and national education systems have in common is that they have been among the main targets of neoliberal policies that have increasingly dismantled public services.
January 13: An Unprecedented Strike Call
Given the widespread anger and this chaotic situation, all the teachers’ unions called on education staff to strike on Thursday, January 13. For all the unions to converge in this way is unprecedented during Blanquer’s ministry. It is the result of strong pressure on union leaderships in the education sector, where staff are at their wits’ end. The crisis is so bad that even the union of school inspectors and school headmasters ended up joining the mobilization. These are not sectors that typically mobilize; more often, they are quite content to serve as the transmission belt of government policies.
“We haven’t seen such a compact and united group of unions, both from the primary and secondary levels but also from management, in many years. It is quite exceptional,” noted education historian Claude Lelièvre in an interview in Libération. Lelièvre is, incidentally, also an unwavering supporter of the Socialist Party, which privatized more under Prime Minister Lionel Jospin (1997–2002) than was privatized under the “new Right” president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007–2012). The mobilization also won the support of parents through their main federation, the FCPE (Federation of Parents Councils), which called for “snow day” and urged its members not to send their children to school on January 13 — and even to extend the mobilization to January 14.
Blanquer’s disastrous policy during — and before — the health crisis has succeeded in bringing together staff and school users in a common rejection of the government’s policies.
Indeed, the health crisis shows in an even more brutal way that we can have no illusions that this government or this system will protect our health. Only our struggles, and the self-organization of workers like those that took place at the beginning of the school year — which created the momentum for making this a massive movement — can exert the kind of pressure needed to impose real health protocols and a real program for education.
For that, education workers cannot be content with just one day of strike. In the days to come, we must organize and expand general assemblies at every level, from our own schools and workplaces, and link up with other sectors that are in motion, such as workers in the health workers and social workers who went on strike on January 11. A strike day is, of course, a crucial part of winning health protocols that will really do what education workers need, but it will not be enough. Teachers and staff in schools must take the reins to decide what measures are needed to confront the health crisis, in consultation with students and their families.
It is also essential that the trade union leaderships, particularly those representing workers in the national education system, propose a battle plan for presenting an overall response in opposition to that of the government. In this new school year, schools are proving to be the Achilles heel of Macron and his government as he tries to keep his MEDEF patrons in “working order” at any cost, while heightening his authoritarian offensive against the “non-vaccinated” — who have become the scapegoats of the crisis.
It is in this context that the trade union leaderships, which until now have been largely passive with respect to the current health crisis, must come up with a plan for bringing together all the sectors that have been mobilized, in support of the caregivers on the front lines. The movement has everything to gain by building solidarity with other sectors of the working class.
More broadly, education workers’ demands must go beyond the simple management of the crisis. They should demand an end to sacrificing schools, and all other public services, for the benefit of capitalist profits. For schools and other public services, we must fight for the allocation of massive resources; for hiring of personnel for permanent, protected jobs; and for wage increases for all the “front line” jobs, which today are precarious and devalued, even though they are the ones that really make society run. It is up to the working class to make the government pay for its criminal policy by refusing to let our lives take second place to their profits!
First published in French on January 12 in Révolution Permanente.
Translated by Scott Cooper