Report Young Europeans and the pandemic | France

Students and the pandemic: a generation sacrificed?

Fear of the future, anxiety and guilt - Covid has hit students particularly hard. While in France universities have remained closed, the material and psychological scars are now all too evident. Katja Petrovic reports from Nanterre campus, near Paris. First of a series on the pandemic's forgotten generation.

Published on 25 March 2021 at 16:11

In her debut novel Faux départ (False start), Marion Messina describes the struggles of students in France. Published in 2017, the book made an immediate and explosive impact. Precarious jobs, exorbitant rents, universities undermined by budget cuts and poor training are leading all but the most privileged Parisians along a road to nowhere. "For the vast majority of French students, university was a choice by default, a universe in which they were parked so that unemployment would not skyrocket," Messina laments.

Buried in debt before even entering the labour market

None of this is new, of course. The crisis has just highlighted these problems. The social divide has become even more acute. The more precarious their situation was before the pandemic, the worse it is for students now. Students such as Chaïma Lassoued, 24, who grew up with her brothers in Nanterre, on the outskirts of Paris. A student of international relations, she has been living on the campus of the University of Nanterre since March, where the student movement started in May 1968. There are still plenty of reasons to revolt today. Indeed, cars are regularly set alight in the campus parking lot by night. Police take the opportunity to search for and raid illegal parties. During the day, students suffer in silence. Most of the 1,400 residents have moved out; others have returned to live with their parents.

Nanterre, France. Chaïma and other residents have created the association ATR92. Several times a week, they organise food distributions for students living at the CROUS in Nanterre. Constance Decorde | Hans Lucas

About 500 students remain, but do not live together. The canteens, study rooms and common kitchens being closed, Chaïma spends most of her time alone in her 15m2 studio. She pays a rent of 160 euros per month, 65 euros for her navigo pass and her cell phone, and has to pay back a loan of 1000 euro, signed before the crisis. "Many of us are even more in debt even before entering the job market". According to Chaïma, interest-free loans for students are of no real help because they only defer the problem. Currently she receives a grant of 170 euros per month, so it is impossible to live without earning money on the side. Since March, Chaïma has been searching for a student job, but so far she has only found a small job with ATR, the association of residents of Nanterre, created by a friend, which helps students in serious difficulty. 

Two hours a day, Chaïma organizes a food run in collaboration with Secours Populaire and other food banks. This earns her just under 200 euro per month - better than nothing, and makes more sense than delivering meals for Uber. The service benefits almost half of local residents, and Chaïma herself, when she no longer feels like going to the canteen, where since January 25, as everywhere else in France, 1 euro meals are offered to students. "They serve us mainly pasta and French fries, it's good for the stomach", says Chaïma laughing, because she doesn't want to complain. "Some of us are doing really badly, quite a few not eating on some days, and in some studios there are rats and bedbugs. It's shameful".

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Depression, guilt, suicidal thoughts

Obviously, all this has consequences. "The more isolated the students are, the less they eat, and the more precarious their housing conditions are, the more they have suicidal thoughts," explains Aziz Essadek, who has been studying the mental health of students since the beginning of the crisis. A lecturer at the University of Lorraine, he has conducted a study of 8000 students in the region since the first lockdown. 40 percent of these students suffer from depression, and 39 percent have anxiety disorders.

Some of us are doing really badly, quite a few not eating on some days, and in some studios there are rats and bedbugs. It’s shameful’.

Chaïma Lassoued

They are mainly young women in precarious situations who have themselves had Covid. During the second lockdown in October-November, the number of students with suicidal thoughts increased significantly. "No one in France has been as isolated for such a long period of time as the students. As a result, today's young people don't even know what their needs are anymore," says the psychologist. 

Since February, students can consult a psychologist or psychiatrist free of charge. Students just have to see a general practitioner to get co-called therapy cheques. However, says Essadek, most students don't feel they need a therapist. They just need their freedom. "Young people between 18 and 25 need to live”. At the beginning of September, when universities briefly reopened their doors, a few did so, even excessively, but all were severely punished.

"Students are not disciplined, they are irresponsible, selfish...", criticism rained down from all sides, including from politicians. This generalisation bothers the psychologist, because according to him the vast majority of students do not act irresponsibly. On the contrary, "young people suffer from guilt complexes and fear of transmitting the virus. Many refuse to go out, and the return to a more or less normal life is difficult for them. Finding an internship, becoming active, making plans: often they lack the motivation to do so". All this leads to a vicious circle of low self-esteem and lack of confidence. 

Constance Decorde | Hans Lucas

“An illegitimate generation

"I’m much less efficient than usual," says Louis Theobald, 18, studying information sciences at Valenciennes Polytechnic University (North of France). Like many of his classmates, he fears that his "Corona diplomas" are of inferior value. Starting with his baccalaureate, which he obtained without taking a final exam. "The baccalaureate seemed to be an important test," says Louis, who, in his first year of college, always feels he's missing out on something essential. "Studies, student life, are the most important years of your life, I often hear people say, but we don't get to enjoy them at all," he says, visibly dejected.

The feeling is shared by Lison Burlat, 22, pursuing a double degree course at EHESS and CELSA, a major communications college in Paris, which she’ll complete this year. Her classmates from last year still haven't received their diplomas. There was a small gathering via zoom, and the students may go for a drink with their teachers when the crisis is over. "There's no break between the end of studies and afterwards. It's brutal," Lison says, pointing indirectly to the anthropological dimension of this crisis: the absence of rituals such as funerals, weddings and the institutional recognition of diplomas by an official award, indispensable to the subsequent feeling of legitimacy.

‘Studies, student life, are the most important years of your life, I often hear people say, but we don't get to enjoy them at all

Louis théobald

But, says Lison, putting a brave face on the situation, "I can’t complain when there are so many students queuing for the food drive. I know I'm privileged". Nevertheless, Lison is still angry when she is told "this is nothing like the forties", and that this crisis "is just a year or two of her life". While this may be true, a year or two of college life is a lot, especially when you can't take full advantage of them. Because, even though distance learning at EHESS and CELSA has been interesting, and all the students in her class have found internships, Lison feels that she is less well equipped for the future. "With internships on zoom you lose interaction, you don't observe, you lose networking possibilities. You find internships, but by default, you censor yourself, which is a shame because you do them in order to be hired right away. At times when I think about the future, I just panic".

“Confusing, contemptuous communication”

"My first duty as a teacher is to reassure them about the future, to tell them that they have developed other skills, and that I don't think this is a generation that is being sacrificed," explains Olivier Ertzscheid, professor at the Technical Institute of La Roche-sur-Yon, near Nantes. Solidarity is one of these skills. Together with his students, Olivier Ertzscheid will open a grocery store on campus in the spring, where students can buy items 30 percent cheaper. Generally speaking, students are closer to each other, catching up, sharing their concerns on YouTube and organising debates on environmental and cultural issues. Many are concerned about the future beyond their personal situation. However, political engagement is difficult during the pandemic. How can you get involved when political issues have given way to the logistical management of the crisis, when you can't exchange ideas face-to-face, and when managing everyday life is complicated enough?

Even among teachers, protests are rare. Olivier Ertzscheid was one of the first to publicly oppose the rules put in place by the government for students because "it was nonsense in substance and form". To draw attention to the distress of students and the contradictions in the management of the crisis, he lectured in the street, in front of the church, in the center of La Roche-sur-Yon. "Why are the universities closed while the churches remain open, why have you set up a tent to do tests in front of the Leclerc and not in front of the universities", he asked, on behalf of his students, who have long been absent from public discourse. Olivier Ertzscheid is convinced that all the safety precautions could have been respected via tests and small-group teaching. With this in mind, he asks that faculties be reopened as soon as possible.

Since mid-January, first-year students are again allowed to attend the university, one day a week for practical classes. For all other students, this rule has been in effect since 8 February. However, the return cannot happen overnight, as many students have given up their rent and cannot afford to return to the university for just a few hours of classes. As a result, many well-intentioned measures have not been thought through. By the time such measures are enacted, they are often already outdated.

“Terribly lonely” – Erasmus during the pandemic

Finally, however, there does seem to be some awareness of the students' situation. And not just in France. In Vienna, for example, traditional cafés have reopened their doors to students despite the lockdown, so that they can meet and work quietly. Vienna is the birthplace of Hannah Kogler, who came to Valenciennes last August for her Erasmus year. At that time the university was open, but the orientation program was cancelled: students had to dive in head first. At least once, Hannah managed to go to Paris with two Erasmus friends. Then the second lockdown started: "I felt terribly lonely and I couldn't follow classes at all because French is only my third foreign language. All I wanted to do was go home".

Luckily Hannah was supported by her classmates and her boyfriend, a Frenchman she met at university. "Without him, I would never have made it." So the year has not been all bad, though relationships are certainly more complicated during the pandemic. Soon Hanna will return to Vienna and no one knows if her boyfriend will be able to come visit. "Our lives depend on other people's decisions. It's a strange feeling," says Hannah. While it's true that everyone’s plans have been toppled by the pandemic, it's particularly serious for students setting course for the future.

In collaboration with the Heinrich Böll Foundation – Paris

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