The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

France’s president says he understands university students’ misery during the coronavirus pandemic. Students aren’t sure.

University students in Paris last week protest covid-19 restrictions under which university classroom lessons are not permitted. (Ian Langsdon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

LYON, France — The hardships of university students during the pandemic have now reached the attention of the highest levels of the French government, with President Emmanuel Macron promising to provide more assistance.

"You haven't been forgotten," he said this month.

But students protesting de facto campus closures, seeking psychological support and lining up for free food handed out by private donors have come to a different conclusion.

In a country that prides itself on having one of the world’s most generous public welfare systems, student food banks have become the most visible display of the economic impact of the pandemic on young people. After 10 months of varying degrees of isolation and restrictions, a less visible but increasingly worrisome mental health crisis is taking form among students, too. Some have been confined for months under lockdown or curfew in 97-square-foot dorm rooms off campus.

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New measures by Macron last week indicated growing alarm among French officials that financial distress and mental health are increasingly intertwined and are fueling one another.

The warnings have echoed similar concerns in the United States and other countries, and they’re not limited to universities. But nowhere has the discussion been more emotional than in France, where students have pushed it to the top of the national agenda in recent weeks by giving voice to fears that resonate far beyond their college dorms.

Students have written open letters asking French ministers for more support. Mental health hospitals have expanded their offerings to cope with a surge in demand among high school and university students. Some professors have themselves requested psychological support after finding their students in distress.

“I was shocked and wiped out,” said Catherine Fillon, a professor of legal history in Lyon. The experience of listening to students and colleagues convinced her she needed to get involved. Amid the country’s first lockdown last spring, she began hosting food distribution events that today supply about 400 students in Lyon and consume much of the time she would normally dedicate to teaching.

A constant flow of students arrived at the event last weekend to pick up essentials ranging from eggs to canned fish to soap. Like every week in recent months, 27-year-old computer engineering student Said traveled across town to secure the items free and carefully packed them in a large bag.

“I’m still trying to find a job to finance my studies, to pay my rent,” said the student from Algeria, who did not want to provide his full name over concerns it could affect his chances of finding employment.

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Rémy Valero, a 23-year-old doctoral student in legal history, works with Fillon and other volunteers. He scrolled through hundreds of messages the group had received over the previous week.

“The students say, ‘I’m lonely, I haven’t talked to anyone in 10 months, I don’t have any contact with anyone. I don’t have enough money. I eat once a day,’ ” he said.

Macron responded to some of those concerns during a panel discussion with students on Thursday. He promised to provide two heavily subsidized student meals a day and easier access to psychologists and to give all students the option to resume in-person classes once a week.

Student groups and some professors and university officials fear it could be too little, too late. Despite the risk of coronavirus clusters on campus, they’re demanding a resumption of more in-person classes and more financial aid.

Concerns over inequality

France remains far from its stated goal of providing equal opportunities to all, but low tuition and affordable student dorms have reduced some of the hurdles that prevent students from disadvantaged backgrounds from attending university in other countries.

But given that the annual registration fee for many university programs is less than $300, parents do not always have dedicated savings to support their children financially on short notice. The jobs many students rely on to pay for food and accommodation were among the first to be axed amid the pandemic.

The impact of financial distress and isolation started to become apparent as early as March, Valero said.

“The more we helped them, the more we realized there was also a psychological problem,” he said.

Fillon, the professor, was puzzled by what she saw as a lack of adequate government support.

If you “don’t talk about the problem, it doesn’t exist,” she said.

The French government has defended its response, saying French students have access to psychological support and announcing more help for vulnerable students in recent weeks. Some students considered to be particularly vulnerable were already set to return to campus before Macron’s announcement on Thursday, and more psychologists were being deployed.

But the volume of requests for help received by private groups suggests that demand far exceeds the availability of appointments, grass-root groups say. Fillon’s and Valero’s group, the Student Solidarity Collective, last year began working with a team of psychologists who volunteered to take emergency mental health calls from students. With a sponsorship program, the group tries to put foreigners in touch with local French families to connect and meet up in person, if possible.

A slow government reversal

The extent of the problem surfaced nationally only this month, when two suicide attempts among students in Lyon amplified the discussion.

A student group accused Macron of “sacrificing a whole generation.” Others pointed out that primary and secondary schools were kept open throughout the fall, partially to reduce inequalities. In an open letter that was widely shared, a 19-year-old student told the president “I feel like I’m dead.”

Macron said he understood. “It’s hard to be 20 years old in 2020,” he wrote — a phrase he first used last year that has become ingrained in the national discourse.

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But Macron’s promise to allow all students back into college buildings at reduced capacity came amid rising coronavirus case numbers and the spread of more highly transmissible variants that have led other countries to suspend in-person classes.

Scientists here have warned that another lockdown appears inevitable. Student groups warn it could exacerbate the problems.

Many students went to the Lyon distribution center again this weekend. The group estimates it would need to double its capacity to satisfy the most urgent needs.

“We are glad that the government is going in the right direction,” Valero said. “But it’s still not enough.”

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