Blackboard Blues

French education in crisis

Lise Bonnafous certainly chose a very public way to end her life. On 13 October, according to several witnesses, she cancelled her 9-10am class, took up a position near the school yard, doused herself in petrol, set fire to herself and then calmly walked into the yard. She was heard to cry: “I am doing this for you!” Teachers and pupils tried to come to her aid, but by the time a sheet had been wrapped round her, her clothes had already melted. She was then flown to hospital by helicopter.

The next day, the self-immolation was confirmed as a suicide: Lise Bonnafous had died from the third-degree burns that covered 95% of her body. So ended the life of this 44-year-old teacher who had been working for ten years at the Jean-Moulin Lycée at Béziers, one of the largest in the Languedoc-Roussillon region.

In a carefully worded statement the 280 teachers at the lycée declared: “This symbolic act has left us reeling and has caused us all much heart-searching (‘nous interroge tous’). This gesture is a call to solidarity for the entire staff and bears witness to the difficulty we have in accomplishing our mission.”

Teaching at the lycée was suspended as staff and students attempted to come to terms with this gruesome event. The teaching staff declared a strike of indefinite duration until responsibility for the tragedy could be established. The French teaching union SNES called for a “debate” concerning the tragedy and pressed the ministry of education for “an improvement in the general conditions of work for teachers, which have become considerably more demanding in the last few years”. Another union, SNALC, said that the suicide points to “an immense malaise in the entire profession”. The unions organised a “white march” (“marche blanche”) in Béziers on 18 October and a further march in Montpellier the following day.

Officials were quick to portray the suicide as the isolated act of a mentally unstable teacher. The French minister of education, Luc Chatel, referred to her “psychologically fragile state” and said that she had been receiving “pedagogical and medical treatment”. However, this claim is denied by colleagues: “Luc Chatel is lying, she was not being treated medically nor was she fragile, but she was conscientious, competent, she loved her work, and she had courage,” said a colleague, a certain F. Peru. Other colleagues pointed out that teachers generally have been reduced to a “fragile” state because of a steady deterioration in their conditions of work.

In any case, this was no ordinary suicide: rather, a symbolic act of self-immolation with all the horrifying impact on those involved, especially the eye witnesses. But even if one may deplore this self-inflicted violence and the trauma it has caused, one cannot ignore the context in which such an extreme act was carried out. Indeed, some of her colleagues regard her as a hero, and admire her for paying the supreme sacrifice in order to draw attention to the problems within the French education system. Morale among French teachers is after all low, as teachers are contending with a number of problems simultaneously, including government cuts, “reforms” (widely suspected as money-saving ploys) and increasingly disruptive behaviour on the part of students.

In the 2011 budget, 16,000 lycée posts are scheduled to disappear out of a total of 850,000 teachers. The increased class size (40 or more) is making effective teaching more difficult and also adding to the marking load for each teacher. The cuts are perceived as all the more perverse because they do not correspond to a decrease in the number of students.

Teachers feel abandoned and misunderstood, that they are not being listened to. They say that recent “reforms” have been introduced without their views being taken sufficiently into account. One symptom of this is that the one-year teacher-training course, in which students taught half-time and spent the rest of the time in training – has been abolished: from now on young teachers will be forced to face the classroom for the first time with almost no preparation. Instead, the trainees are obliged to attend a few “training sessions” throughout the year. Exactly what is taught in these sessions has emerged in a report about one such session held in Bordeaux on 3 December last year. Trainees were lectured on their rights and duties as civil servants – but were not given any actual training on classroom teaching. Instead, they “benefited” from a talk in which two army officers tried to persuade trainees to steer their students towards a career in the army! ((“Des militaires pour former les profs stagiaires”,, based on an eye-witness account given to a representative of the SNES of Lot-et-a-Garonne))  “If my soldiers were to begin to think, not one of them would remain in the army,” said Frederick the Great. Towards what career is the French government trying steer its students, if not a military one?

Disruptive behaviour in the classroom is another concern, pointing to problems within society at large. Sometimes this leads to assaults on teachers, which are on the increase. The FNEC FP-FO teaching union links the increase in violence and incivility to the suppression of teaching posts and CPEs (a team of administrators responsible for disciplinary matters): more than 60,000 positions abolished since 2007. If the recent changes have a negative effect on student behaviour or performance, the cuts will have turned out to be a false economy.

The attempt to instil martial virtues is not the only example of insensitivity on the part of the educational authorities. Bad feeling has also been caused by the increase in bonuses paid to the rectors of education academies (the regional bodies responsible for implementing national education policy) at a time when less money is being allocated for teaching. In fact bonuses are a normal part of the benefits package of France’s top civil servants. In this case, however, the bonuses were doubly outrageous: first, they were being awarded to proviseurs in proportion to the number of posts or institutions they were able to abolish; second, for 2011 the bonus had been increased from 19,000 to 22,000 euros – money that could have been used to help pay the somewhat meagre salary of teachers. The issue of bonuses was highlighted when a retired lycée director, Michel Ascher, an officer in the order of “Palmes Académiques”, handed back his decoration in protest. In an open letter dated 22 December 2010 he publicly lambasted the French educational system as being concerned exclusively with money. Other holders of the same distinction quickly followed suit.

A sign that teaching resources are being stretched is that the rules governing the conditions under which teachers are supposed to work are being flouted. Several teachers have been assigned classes in schools from 35 to as many as 66 kilometres apart, even though the rules clearly state that the teacher may be asked to teach only in the same town or in a neighbouring one. This immediately creates extra work in terms of commuting and multiplication of meetings with staff and parents. Of course, a teacher has the right – after a months-long appeal process – to refuse these extra demands, but at a price. The proviseurs (lycée directors) wield a lot of power. They can put pressure on you to teach another subject instead of paying someone else who is qualified to do it; they can assign you to larger classes if you exercise your right to refuse to work more than two supplementary hours; or they can simply order you to teach those extra hours.

Other “reforms” are in the pipeline. A proposed new law would change the way lycées are inspected. Instead of the current independent inspectorate, the task of inspecting would fall to the directorate of the lycée itself. Apart from the fact that the work schedules of proviseurs and vice-proviseurs are already stretched, the proposal almost guarantees that the process will be carried out in a perfunctory way at best. At worst, favouritism, or the suspicion of favouritism, is an obvious danger, not to mention conflict of interest and lack of impartiality. Such a measure merely reinforces the suspicion among teachers that the so-called “reforms” are a thin disguise for money-saving ploys.

On suspects too that Sarkozy is playing to popular discontent with civil servants, the category to which lycée teachers belong. French bureaucracy is cumbersome and expensive, and civil servants are often seen as lazy, overpaid and over-protected. Anything that would bring their pay and conditions into line with the private sector is seen by many as a good thing. However, while it is true that some civil servants are well paid, this is not the case with most lycée teachers. Teachers face the added problem of a restrictive work schedule: whereas most workers can take time off then they please, teachers are obliged to turn up for the classes and cannot change their schedule. The stereotype of feather-bedded bureaucrats does not apply to teachers.

Secondly, Sarkozy wants to go one better than the private sector: in an effort to cut down on absenteeism, it is being proposed that civil servants forfeit one day’s pay for each period of sick leave. Apart from the measure’s obvious unfairness in criminalizing illness, it could have the reverse effect to the one intended: workers who are genuinely sick the first day could well decide to take a second or even a third day off in addition, even if they are not sick, just to get their “money’s worth”.

France is generally viewed as a “worker-friendly” country where employees receive generous social benefits and can be sacked only with difficulty. The reality, however, is that unhappiness at the workplace is a major problem in France. (It was probably a factor behind the recent strikes against pension reforms.) Renault was hit by a spate of workplace suicides a few years ago. France Telecom lost a staggering 58 of its employees to suicide within three years. In a grim premonition of the Lise Bonnafous case, one worker killed himself by setting himself on fire. Another “model” in the Bonnafous case could have been street vendor’s suicide that sparked off the revolution in Tunisia.

Both Renault and France Telecom were facing difficulties at the time the suicides occurred, and low morale would have been an issue even under the best management. In the specific case of France Telecom, it has been alleged that there was a policy of attempting to reduce staff without resorting to redundancies.[8] The suspicion must be that, precisely because redundancy is such a laborious and expensive process in France, in certain cases employers are resorting to ruthless tactics to slim down their workforce: making life hell for their employees in the hope that they will leave – unless, that is, they commit suicide first.

In the case of the French education system, however, the likely culprit is incompetence and lack of imagination rather than ruthless pursuit of profit. However you view the causes, Lise Bonnafous’s is by no means the first suicide among teachers: recent cases include a school director in July, two teachers in June, and in August a young trainee who had been dismissed. According to a study by Inserm (a public research institute) dating from 2002, the suicide rate among teachers in the national education system is unusually high, at 39 per 100,000 per year.

French teachers are hoping their educational system will not become another France Telecom.

James Chater is a freelance journalist living in France. He is married to a French lycée teacher and has one child at école maternelle, another at école élementaire. Read other articles by James.