France offers Covid-hit students cheap meals

President Emmanuel Macron on Thursday promised all students in France two square meals a day for just one euro (US$1.21) each to help them cope with Covid-19 restrictions. He said students would also be given subsidies to pay for professional counselling if they felt overwhelmed by the restrictions, which include closed universities, a 6:00 pm nationwide curfew and diminishing opportunities for student jobs.

Speaking to students at the Paris-Saclay University, Macron said there could be no return to normality before the end of the current semester with Covid-related restrictions remaining in force “until the summer”. Macron’s promises came a day after students protested across France over their conditions during Covid-19 restrictions, saying they were being pushed to the brink of despair by solitude and financial uncertainty.

A student studies during the coronavirus. Source: Philippe LOPEZ / AFP

Many have demanded a return to full face-to-face teaching suspended due to the pandemic. For the time being, only first-year students will be permitted to attend classroom tutorials, from January 25 but in half-groups. But on Thursday, Macron said all students should be allowed on campus once a week as long as distancing measures in auditoriums and classrooms were respected. “A student must have the same rights as a salary earner,” Macron said. “If needed, they must be allowed to come to university once a week.”

He acknowledged that this would be “complicated” to implement, but that he had confidence in universities that they would manage. “Given what your generation has already gone through, we cannot but take into account your right to some on-site presence, to exchange with your teachers, and to meet with other students,” he said, adding that the health situation also had to be considered.

Subsidies for professional counselling would take the form of a voucher, to be issued from the start of February, that could be claimed by all students and used to cover the cost of a psychologist or psychiatrist “if they need one”, Macron said. Students will be able to get cheap meals from restaurants known as “resto U”, canteen-style places with outlets near universities that are currently open only for takeaway.