The Olympics

Paris suburbs get spanking new Olympic venues while teachers and pupils seethe in decrepit schools

Author: Editors Desk Source: France 24
April 28, 2024 at 07:24
Protesters in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, hold a banner near the Olympic Aquatic Centre reading: "€177 million for one swimming pool while our schools are sinking". © Julien Neyer, FCPE 93
Protesters in Saint-Denis, north of Paris, hold a banner near the Olympic Aquatic Centre reading: "€177 million for one swimming pool while our schools are sinking". © Julien Neyer, FCPE 93

Teachers and parents in the north-eastern suburbs of Paris have staged several weeks of strikes and protests in the run-up to the Paris Olympics, leveraging the Games as they call for urgent measures to help struggling state schools in mainland France’s poorest region, home to many of the Olympics’ signature venues.

By: Benjamin DODMAN

Snaking her way through a maze of roadworks, Saint-Ouen resident Zora Cheikh is unimpressed with the vast resources that have been pumped into this suburb of Paris in the run-up to the Olympics

Located on the northern edge of Paris, Saint-Ouen will host a large chunk of the Olympic Village this summer, part of huge infrastructure projects that officials have touted as a game-changing legacy for the Seine-Saint-Denis area, the poorest in mainland France.   

Cheikh, however, is more concerned about the chronic teacher shortages that have stripped her children of hundreds of hours of learning throughout the academic year. 

“When you see the money they’re pumping into the Olympics, which will last only a few weeks, it’s infuriating,” said the mother of five. “Our kids’ education, that’s where the future lies.” 


A banner reading 'school in recovery position' outside Danton elementary school in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis.
A banner reading "school in recovery position" outside Danton elementary school in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24


Cheikh flagged a dearth of replacement teachers, nurses and supporting staff at her children’s schools that have gone months without French, maths or music teachers. She also lamented a crumbling infrastructure that leaves teachers and pupils to contend with pest infestations, leaking roofs and classrooms that have neither heating nor ventilation. 

While such problems are hardly exclusive to Seine-Saint-Denis, they are concentrated and exacerbated in this densely populated, working-class area that has absorbed immigrant wave after wave and is home to France’s youngest population. 

“The kids feel slighted when their school is a dump. It’s as if they were being told, ‘this is all you deserve’,” said Cheick, echoing grievances voiced by parents and teachers across the neuf trois (9-3), as the region is commonly known owing to its administrative number and zip code marker.

“We’re not asking for special treatment,” she added. “We just want equal opportunities for our children.” 


Fostering inequality

Failure to uphold the French Republic’s promise of equal opportunities has been documented by parliamentary reports focusing on the plight of schools in the neuf trois (93). Lawmaker Stéphane Peu, who co-authored one such report published last November, said “schools in Seine-Saint-Denis are not living up to their Republican promise: instead of reducing social inequalities, they are exacerbating them”. 

Growing anger at this state of affairs has resulted in a rare coalition of parents and teachers’ unions. Together, they have staged weeks of strikes and protests across the region and in central Paris, calling for urgent measures to help struggling schools. 


Teachers from the Seine-Saint-Denis department protest with a banner which reads 'in the 93, lets gain an emergency plan for education'.
Teachers from Seine-Saint-Denis took their protest to Place du Trocadero in Paris on April 22, 2024. © Sami Karaali, AFP


At one such protest outside Saint-Ouen's town hall, local arts teacher Eva said parents were broadly supportive of strike action, despite the further loss of learning time for their children. 

“Parents want to see teachers in each classroom, they’re fed up with the failure to replace staff,” she said. “They also want respect and consideration for their schools and for the wider community.” 

Teachers’ unions have come up with a detailed plan d’urgence (emergency plan) for schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, which they say will cost €358 million – twice the cost of the Olympic Aquatic Centre built just north of Saint-Ouen. Measures advocated in the plan include hiring some 5,000 teachers and around 2,000 support staff for pupils with disabilities. 

Marie-Noëlle Vaucelle, a local representative of the parents’ association FCPE, said such measures are necessary to restore faith in France’s state schools at a time when middle-class families’ flight to the private sector is exacerbating social divides. 

She added: “You keep hearing about the need for more social diversity – and yet the Republic’s education system is being stabbed in the back.” 


Local lawmakers and concillors join a protest outside Saint-Ouen town hall calling for emergency measures to help schools in Seine-Saint-Denis.


Vaucelle said the challenging conditions in Seine-Saint-Denis mean local schools struggle to attract fresh recruits. As a result, they are disproportionately reliant on teachers who are young, inexperienced and at the lower end of the pay scale – many of whom end up dropping out. 

“We have young teachers who are motivated and passionate about their jobs, but who work in impossible conditions,” she said. “To mistreat our teachers is to mistreat our children.” 


‘Millions for uniforms – but no money for toilet paper or soap’

The protest movement in Seine-Saint-Denis has converged with nationwide strikes against educational reforms pushed by Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s government and fiercely resisted by a united front of unions. 

The measures, announced by Attal last year when he was education minister, include a controversial plan to divide middle-school students into groups according to their levels in mathematics and French. The government also said it would test mandatory uniforms – long advocated by right-wing and far-right politicians – at dozens of schools in a trial towards possibly making them compulsory nationwide. 

The push for school uniforms, which the government touted as a means to reduce social inequality and uphold France’s secular values, came months after it stirred controversy in diverse areas such as Seine-Saint-Denis with a highly publicised school ban on abayas – long, loose robes favoured by some Muslim girls.

At a late-night meeting in a primary school in Montreuil this week, one of several such gatherings across the eastern suburb of Paris, teachers and parents blasted the Attal reform plan as costly and a distraction from the real problems facing French schools. 

In a nearby classroom, children wrote postcards to the Elysée Palace, asking President Emmanuel Macron for a playground, a replacement teacher or “salt at the canteen” – and to not separate them between “good” and “bad” students.  


Postcards addressed to President Emmanuel Macron, with messages from pupils at Danton elementary school in Montreuil.
Postcards addressed to President Emmanuel Macron, with messages from pupils at Danton elementary school in Montreuil. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24


“The government spends a fortune on uniforms nobody wants but there’s no money for toilet paper or soap at my school,” said 15-year-old Agathe, one of a smattering of local high school students who took part in the meeting. 

Her account of staff shortages and decrepit buildings echoed a viral TikTok video filmed by pupils and teachers at the Blaise-Cendrars high school in Sevran, north-east of Paris, which took viewers on a tour of the school’s dilapidated premises. 

“We’re at Blaise-Cendrars, of course we have a bucket for leaks because we don’t have a ceiling,” says one student in the video, which garnered more than a million views in just one day. “I’m a French teacher at Blaise-Cendrars, of course when I was pregnant my students didn’t have French lessons for six months,” adds a member of staff. 

The teachers were promptly summoned by school authorities, in what unions decried as a form of intimidation. 


Leveraging the Games

Olivier Gallet, a primary school teacher and member of the Sud Education union, said the success of the TikTok video highlighted the multifaceted nature of a movement that has already outmatched and outlasted past protests. 

He hailed the “unprecedented cohesion between teachers, parents and students”, while also praising the support received from politicians and local officials in towns like Montreuil, which have allowed parents and teachers to occupy school premises. 

On April 2, Montreuil and 11 other municipalities in Seine-Saint-Denis sent a formal notice to the French state requesting that it guarantee equality in state education. Adopting the recommendations of the unions’ plan d’urgence, each town issued a decree ordering the state to pay them €500 per day until it provides “resources commensurate with educational needs”.  

The decrees were quashed on Friday by an administrative court in Montreuil, which ruled that the mayors had overstepped their authority.

Two days after the start of the legal action, teachers’ unions and the FCPE staged a rally outside the brand-new Olympic Aquatic Centre in Saint-Denis as Macron attended its inauguration – signalling their intent to leverage the Paris Games as they attempt to step up the pressure on the government.  


The brand new Olympic Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis, north of Paris – a much-needed addition to an area sorely lacking in swimming pools.
The brand new Olympic Aquatics Centre in Saint-Denis, north of Paris – a much-needed addition to an area sorely lacking in swimming pools. © Dimitar Dilkoff, AFP


Back at the protest in Saint-Ouen, left-wing lawmaker Eric Coquerel, the head of the National Assembly’s finance committee, called for further action with Olympic preparations for the global sporting event now in the final stretch. 

“The Olympics are 93 days away,” he said. “We must let it be known that there will be no smooth run-up to the Games until the neuf trois gets what is deserves.” 

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