July 18, 2015

Laure Betbeder, a biology teacher in Toulouse, has been on hunger strike since June 24 to protest against the decision of her school, which resulted in the relocation of six teachers due to their involvement in a strike last year. Opposite the camp where she protests stands the office of the Local Education Office, and she has repeatedly denounced the sanctions against six teachers under the large windows of the office. Very little seems to be heard by the Local Education Officer, who backed the decision of the school and was reluctant to give details concerning the case. The only allegation, which caused the relocation of the teachers, was that they involved in a three-week strike last winter to demand better working conditions and increase in wages. They were reportedly relocated for public interest, as their behaviour was deemed to be a breach of courtesy and loyalty to superiors.

On April 2014, the Bellefontaine High-school, where Laure Betbeder worked as a biology teacher, was selected as one of the 102 schools countrywide, which were designated to be the focus of a new priority education programme to eliminate inequality in France. This project was celebrated by teachers, who thought that revamping the education system for eradicating the sheer inequality between students was crucial for a better future in France. The programme, called REP + préfigurateurs, targeted to ensure the academic success of students not only by improving their language skills but also by employing a caring approach to their problems. Encouraging collective study and providing personal care with the students who have difficulty in a particular topic were some significant objectives of the programme. Teachers, who had supported the programme’s target of combating inequality in schools, were disillusioned when they noticed that the new programme burdened them with meticulous tasks which required overtime. Assessing extra assignments, providing one-to-one help to students, and preparing schedule for student projects were quite challenging for teachers, as it entailed unpaid extra working hours.

Teachers, on September 2014, started to complain that the education reform had been conducted at their own expense. Although they requested additional resources several times, their demand was not heard by the education authority. Denouncing the discrepancy between the ambitious objectives of the programme and the lack of resources allocated to teachers for achieving them, thirty-five teachers decided to launch a strike in December. During the three-week strike, teachers contested the use of unpaid overtime for providing students with methodological support and setting up new schedules. The principle of Bellefontaine did not manage the course of strike successfully, as he disparaged the striking teachers without trying to understand their demands. The Local Education Officer, on the other hand, by not involving directly in the resolution of the strike, left the principle of the school in charge of dealing with the teachers on strike. The principle was known for his arbitrary decisions on significant issues. Although teachers sent numerous emails to the Local Education Officer to alert her on the rising tensions with the principle, they did not receive a response.

Mary, a teacher on strike, told the French daily L’Humanité that the principal had refused funding educational projects without a reason. Teachers, who were summoned to the principle’s office for settling the dispute before Christmas, came back in tears as their projects were cancelled without a justification. She also stated that since the beginning of the strike the principle has used a derogatory language towards the teachers. “From the beginning of the conflict, he yelled at us, saying ‘you are the shame of public service! You are the disgrace of Bellefontaine.'” The mediation of the school inspectorate intervened three months later, which worsened the tension between the striking teachers and the school management.

On May 22, 2015, six teachers received a letter from the bailiff, which stated that due to “the breach of courtesy and loyalty to superiors” and “disrupting proper functioning of the public education service” they were transferred to other establishments and risked disciplinary action. Didier, one of the six teachers, talked to the Libération and asked why only six of thirty-five teachers, who were on strike, were relocated. Didier complained that the principle had written false reports against the teachers, and they did not have a ground to defend themselves, as numerous letters to the education authority did not receive a reply.

On June 24, Laure Betbeder began her hunger strike. She has chosen the park in front of the Local Education Office as her camp. She announced the reporters that she has made her mind to bring the last card she has for compelling the Ministry of Education to react. Nutritionists and general practitioners visited her daily to ensure that her health was not in danger. She stated,” I inflict pain in myself, because I do not want to leave my school. I do not see myself elsewhere in the coming year. My colleagues and I have the experience needed for the job. It will be difficult to replace us.”

Beside Laure Betbeder, her mother and two of her colleagues also started a hunger strike to support Laure’s cause. Yesterday afternoon, weakened by the long hunger strike, Laure Betbeder was only partially responsive. She was hospitalized and placed in the intense care. Her mother, in hunger strike for twelve days, was also taken to the hospital. Laure’s strike has started a collective movement in Toulouse, which went beyond the scope of the Bellefontaine High-school, as several other institutions also showed their solidarity with Laure and other relocated teachers.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has appointed a mediator to end the conflict. According to the results of mediation, the disciplinary record of six teachers will completely be cleansed. Laure Betbeder’s transfer to another school has also been annulled, and she will be able to continue to work at the Bellefontaine High-school. However, her five colleagues will still be relocated to different schools. Laure Betbeder is likely to pursue her fight with her colleagues to ensure that all of six teachers will be able to work in their own school without relocation.