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The 'Stylos Rouges' (Red Pens) take to the streets as French teachers demand change

Jacques Demarthon, AFP | French teachers march behind a banner reading "Angry Teachers, Sick schools, Democracy in Danger" during a demonstration called by the Stylos Rouges asking for a readjustement of their wages in Paris, January 2, 2019.

French teachers who find themselves at breaking point after years of being asked to do more with less took to the streets of Paris, Lyon, Nice and Bordeaux on Saturday, demanding a salary increase and better conditions for teachers and students.

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From the Yellow Vests to the Blue Vests to the Pink Vests, France is experiencing a kaleidoscope of protest movements, often fuelled by anger over what is seen as longstanding economic injustice.

In December, school teachers, administrators and other members of the national education system united to form the “Stylos Rouges” (Red Pens) movement with the aim of bringing the struggles of France’s teachers into the public eye. Within three weeks the group had amassed close to 44,000 members.

Among their demands are an immediate pay rise that would finally reflect decades of inflation as well as better conditions for both teachers and students, who sometimes struggle to excel in overcrowded classrooms staffed by teachers who are overstretched.

The group’s Facebook page, which now lists more than 67,000 members, emphasises that the Stylos Rouges are not linked with any political party or unions. Instead, it is a loose coalition of educators, administrators and others "who share our convictions, if not our métier”.

Stylos Rouges member and professor of French Nicolas Glière told FRANCE 24 that the education ministry has promised to address their concerns but that so far there have been no concrete results.

The ministry said it understood and heard our complaints, he said. “But in fact nothing was done.”

Above all, salaries are the main concern.

“We have lost 40 percent of our purchasing power since 1983. We demand the re-evaluation of the salary that we should have, that is to say, a pay rise of 40 percent – which would merely be returning our salaries to normal.”

An OECD study found that the salaries of teachers in France declined by about 10 percent between 2000 and 2015.

According to figures released by the education ministry in 2015, the average gross monthly salary of a teacher is €2,971 (€2,475 net). But this monthly average includes everyone from those just starting out to professors who have been teaching for some 40 years. The Stylos Rouges point out that new teachers working full time can earn a gross salary of less than €1,900.

>> Yellow Vests: Are France’s working poor being left behind?

The movement is also seeking an end to mandatory employee layoffs and other policies that Glière says prevent teachers from doing their jobs properly.

“The lack of resources is glaring,” said Glière. “Classes with thirty, thirty-five, thirty-eight students – and at the same time we are being asked to help students who are having trouble – it’s impossible.”

“We want respect and a decent salary that reflects the importance of our contribution to society.”

Breaking point

Glière said the education ministry wants the teachers to keep quiet, “to keep us from explaining what is really going on" in France's primary, secondary and high schools.

“Many, many fellow teachers are at the breaking point,” he said, noting that they receive little support from school administrators. Moreover, faculty administrations themselves are sometimes “completely disconnected” from what is going on in the classroom, leading them at times to make “absurd” demands.

Dominique Dubarry, an earth science professor in southern Paris and a member of the Stylos Rouges, told Europe 1 that the poor conditions teachers work under is also making recruitment harder.

"I'm the third generation of teachers in my family, and none of my kids wants to be a teacher. They have seen me all too often with the papers that follow me everywhere, the classes I must prepare, the all-nighters," she said.

"And yet, they also see that I am passionate about my work.”

"I've been recommending my job for years," Dubarry said. "But this year, for the first time, I say, 'Think carefully before you become a teacher’."

Frustration over low wages and poor working conditions is exacerbated by what some teachers see as a lack of respect.

Glière noted that many of the professions that are most important to a functioning society are poorly compensated. Public funds are “very badly allocated”, he said.

“Each profession must rise up and demand to be taken seriously," said Glière. "That much is clear."

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