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Food vouchers and overdrafts: Covid-19 puts France’s poorest students in a tight spot

A French student follows a university course online in her room on March 27, 2020, during the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak.
A French student follows a university course online in her room on March 27, 2020, during the lockdown due to the coronavirus outbreak. © AFP

A week before the end of term in French universities, France’s poorest students tell FRANCE 24 how their daily struggles have been exacerbated by the lockdown.  

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If there was one thing Imane took away from French President Emmanuel Macron’s televised address on April 13, it was his promise to provide immediate help for “the most vulnerable students”.

For the past several weeks, the 21-year-old has only been able to eat thanks to the €50 Carrefour supermarket vouchers sent to by her social worker when her cupboards are empty.

“At the beginning of the lockdown it was very tricky, because the most basic foods (pasta, flour, etc.) were missing from the shelves. I had to buy expensive brand name products, but I ended up finding ways to get what I needed. I can buy vegetables, but for meat, it depends,” she said.

Imane, a student at Paris-Nanterre University, rarely leaves her 28-square-metre studio in her student housing facility. Her window overlooks the courtyard of the opposite building. But she prefers the calm of her student lodgings to the busy streets of Choisy, in Paris’s 13th arrondissement (district), where her parents live.

Students can’t afford rent

Having fallen out with her family over a year ago, Imane was unable to go and stay with her parents when the lockdown began on March 17.

Only three of the eight students usually living on her university housing floor have remained there under lockdown, and they’ve been asked to continue paying their rent.

But Imane can’t afford the €525 monthly fee.

“It’s absurd,” said Mélanie Luce, president of the National Union of Students of France (UNEF). “The students who stayed are in a more precarious situation, while those who left their student housing temporarily are exempt. We’ve launched a petition demanding that the state also exempt students who are forced to remain in their university dorms.”

At the end of March, the Ministry of Higher Education released €10 million in “specific emergency aid” for students. (Requests can be made by calling the toll-free number: 0806 000 278.)

UNEF described the investment as “necessary, but falling well short” of what was needed.

“Only 20,000 students will be able to benefit from the extra money. It’s a positive step, but unfortunately it’s also ridiculous, given the number of students in urgent need: Remember that nearly one in two students work in normal times,” the students’ union said.

Income lost

Imane submitted an aid application with the help of her social worker but is still awaiting a response.

“I was supposed to start a new babysitting job three days before the lockdown. I had finally found a stable job. I was fed up with temping, working as a cashier, or at McDonalds. I was tired of it. But I’m worried about what happens afterwards, too. Will my contract continue? In the meantime, I’m going through job ads and applying for positions for this summer,” she said.

Julia (not her real name), recently quit her job. She had been working as a cashier at the Auchan supermarket in Val d’Europe, in Seine-et-Marne, since the beginning of the school year. For her, it was a student job “for a line on her CV” and to help pay for her vacations.

An undergraduate management student, Julia, 20, could not find a job in her field. “I figured that a job in sales, even if was at the bottom of the ladder, would give me work experience,” she said. “In my third year, I have to produce a dissertation about my work experience.”

But since the beginning of the lockdown, her student job has become a nightmare.

“I’m exhausted, we have customers non-stop, and between each customer we have to clean the conveyor belt, the Plexiglas, the cash register terminals and the handles of the shopping baskets. I’ve had back surgery and the pain has come back. I can’t keep up with the pace,” she said.

Julia lives with her parents and worries about her mother’s fragile health. “That’s really what made me quit: I’m afraid of infecting my mother, since, who knows, I might have the virus but be asymptomatic. At work we only get one mask a day; the protection measures at Auchan are insufficient,” she said.

For Léa (not her real name), a 23-year-old student who works as a receptionist by day at a large company in Issy-les-Moulineaux in Hauts-de-Seine, and a babysitter by night for families in Paris, partial unemployment benefits from her day job barely cover her monthly €650 rent for a shared flat, plus her €525 monthly student loan installment.   

“At the moment my overdraft is only at €150, so I think I'm doing pretty well,” she said.

One of the families that employed her as a babysitter offered to continue paying her “out of solidarity”, even though she could no longer work. The other family terminated her contract. The young sophrology student reckons she lost €400 in income this month. “It’s money I used to use to go out and to eat better,” she said, adding that she would have to watch her meat consumption this month and buy cheaper products.

The stress of final exams

On top of the stress caused by the loss of income, there is also the anxiety ahead of the upcoming end-of-year exams. “The worst part is the uncertainty,” said Imane, a week before her finals. “We don’t yet know what form they will take.” She already had trouble submitting an assignment online last week because of congestion on her university’s online platform.

“The professors said that we can submit the assignments at different times, to stagger the connections to the site. But how will we manage to take the exams if we all need to log on at the same time?” she asked. “In 2018, my university was blockaded and we took our exams online. The site crashed and I had to restart my test from the beginning with only 10 minutes to go. So I’m really stressed about next week,” she said.

For Julia, who lives with her parents, the wifi at home doesn’t work very well, so she uses her phone’s 4G hotspot connection. “I already took one exam online and wasn’t able to submit my assignment on the platform. I was really scared and wrote to the professor, who agreed to receive my assignment by email,” she said.

UNEF estimates that 10 percent of students have problems accessing digital tools, based on surveys conducted among students from the Paris 2-Panthéon-Assas, Rennes 2 and Lorraine universities.

“We would prefer students to be assessed on their homework, with recommended submission dates, which is not ideal either. But your classic final exams don’t necessarily guarantee equality,” warned Luce of the students’ union.

“Students who have only one computer for the whole family, or those who might be forced to study from home, while facing domestic violence – the students in the most precarious situations will once again find themselves at a disadvantage,” she said.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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