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Food vouchers and overdrafts: Covid-19 puts Frances poorest students in a tight spot

A week before the end of term in French universities, Frances poorest students tell FRANCE 24 how th..

By admin , in Health , at April 17, 2020

A week before the end of term in French universities, Frances 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 Macrons 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 Pariss 13th arrondissement (district), where her parents live.

Students cant 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 theyve been asked to continue paying their rent.

But Imane cant afford the €525 monthly fee.

“Its 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. Weve 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. Its a positive step, but unfortunately its 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 Im worried about what happens afterwards, too. Will my contract continue? In the meantime, Im 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 dEurope, 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.

“Im 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. Ive had back surgery and the pain has come back. I cant keep up with the pace,” she said.

Julia lives with her parents and worries about her mothers fragile health. “Thats really what made me quit: Im 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. “Its 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.

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