Thousands of teachers struck across France on Monday and Tuesday in protest at the lack of coronavirus safety in schools.
In some places school students also blockaded their schools against an unsafe return to classes.
Teachers held general assemblies—mass meetings—as a two-week holiday break came to an end.
They were expected to return with hardly any new safety measures even though the number of Covid-19 cases has soared. On Monday 416 deaths were reported in France.
Four teaching unions had given notices of potential strikes which were then turned into reality by action from below.
One Twitter account, @STOPreformes, posted scores of reports of walkouts and stoppages.
Teachers in Chelles in the suburbs of Paris said, “More than 20 colleagues have submitted their right of withdrawal from work to the management in the face of the health situation and non-compliance with the protocols. Other colleagues are on strike for the same reason.”
At Aretha Franklin College in Drancy, teachers reported, “Two thirds of colleagues met in a virtual general assembly on Sunday and unanimously decided to launch the strike movement tomorrow morning to draft motions on three points—teaching only small groups, masks for all, recruitment of more staff. Tuesday—renewal of the strike.”
At Leon Blum high school in Creteil there was a “unanimous vote of the 53 present in a general assembly to refuse if the classes are not cut in half and to teach on rotas”.
Students also took the initiative. At Maurice Ravel high school in Paris they used large waste bins and metal fencing to blockade their school “to denounce the government’s management of the crisis and demand a real health protocol”.
It was the same at Paul Eluard school in Saint-Denis.
And at the Colbert school in the heart of Paris, hundreds of young people gathered at 6.30am to protest against the “deplorable sanitary conditions in schools”.
They were tear gassed and removed by armed police, but most of the school closed anyway. Around 60 students face fines for disobeying police.
Up to 300 students blocked the entrance to the Aristride-Briand school in Saint-Nazaire on Tuesday.
Arthur, a teacher in Saint-Denis, said the strike was “a last resort to give a warning about the situation”.
“We all want to work, students and teachers, but we realise since the start of the school year that safety measures are not being respected,” he said. “In the student toilets there are only eight taps available for hand washing—for 570 students.
“In addition, there has been no soap in these toilets since the beginning of the school year. It is surreal in the current context.”
Fury over the threat to workers’ and students’ health has combined with other issues. In some schools walkouts enforced a demand to have a proper discussion about the murder of teacher Samuel Pety.
“It was a combination of marking this terrible incident but also wanting to talk about the issues it raised about how the government has responded in a very aggressive manner,” one teacher told the local media in Marseilles.
When teachers were denied this opportunity by their management, some stopped work.
And the attitude of the government intensified this anger.
To commemorate Petty’s death, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer had decreed the reading of a famous letter “To teachers” written in 1888 by Jean Jaures.
Jaures was a pioneering socialist leader who was murdered in 1914 by a right wing fanatic because he opposed the First World War.
His letter praises the work of teachers. But a paragraph was removed in the official versions sent out by the government—because it echoes criticism teachers have today of “reforms” to the education system.
Jaures wrote, “I am deadly against this certificate of primary studies. What a deplorable system we have in France with these exams at all levels which suppress the initiative of the teacher and also the good faith of teaching by sacrificing reality for appearance!”
The SUD education union said, “This sentence resonates particularly with Blanquer’s school project— national assessments imposed on students and staff, continuous assessment tests that deny the needs of students, families and staff.”
Julien Cartier, a teacher in Nice, said, “At a time when our government presents itself as an uncompromising defender of freedom of expression, its services are engaging in an act of censorship.
“Because I do not see how to describe otherwise the suppression of a passage in which one can read a remarkable criticism of the practices of the current ministry.”
Other teachers contrasted Jaures’ opposition to war and colonialism with the present government’s militarism and suppression of democratic rights.
The strikes and blockades are far from over. At the Pablo Neruda school in Stains, for example, 38 teachers were on strike on Tuesday, up from 20 on Monday.
And the ideological confrontation over education and issues in wider society is growing.