The sun had barely risen over Paris and cayenne pepper was already filling the air.
- Schoolchildren protested across France over perceived lack of coronavirus protection in classrooms
- France is in the middle of a nationwide lockdown, even though schools have remained open
- Some medics believe the country’s lockdown measures should go further
Students protesting an alleged lack of protection against COVID-19 inside schools were the target of the protest last week, but anyone nearby could smell the acrid substance in their nostrils.
They attempted to form a barricade of wheelie bins to block the entrance to their general high school, the Lycée Colbert, in northern Paris.
But the police had been warned beforehand of their plan and tried to quell the protest before it even started.
Dressed in armor and holding shields, police forced the students to back down, using pepper spray to disperse them.
A protester was seen clutching his face in pain.
Bruno Megner, a 16-year-old protester, said the police use of force was unnecessary.
“This is police brutality,” he told ABC.
“We don’t want to protest against the police but [instead] with the government.
“They don’t have to be so hard and brutal on us. “
With more than 2 million cases in total, France has the worst infection figures in Europe.
On Tuesday, an additional 437 people were added to the COVID-19 death toll, bringing the total to 46,273.
The country is in the midst of a lockdown, but the government of President Emmanuel Macron is determined to keep schools open, fearing that students will be left behind if their education is interrupted.
Bruno said the security measures inside his school were inadequate and that putting 30 students together in one room was “dangerous”.
“Nobody plays by the rules, there is no social distancing,” he said.
The French education department said it was informed of 12,487 new infections in the week ending November 13, which represents just 0.1% of the total student population.
However, the total number of infections in children under the age of 19 was close to 30,000 during the same period, suggesting that some positive cases were not reported to schools.
The government says classrooms are thoroughly cleaned and ventilated and masks are mandatory for students aged six and older.
While young people typically display mild symptoms of COVID-19, Bruno said he was concerned about spreading the virus within his family.
“My mother is really old. We don’t just think of ourselves, ”he says.
‘They want us to work like little dogs’
In a nearby school, the Lycée George Brassens, students succeeded in blocking the entrance before being pushed back by the police.
Those who resisted were threatened with batons and pepper spray.
The ABC met a group of girls, aged 14 and 15, who said they were shocked by the police response.
“They pushed us into the street and I was hit hard by a shield,” student Lou Goldstein, who held her arm, told ABC.
“I think it would be nice to stop violent students, but all peaceful students, you can’t charge and strangle them,” said another student, Tia Totria.
“We’re just kids, we’re not even 16 years old. “
The government has offered a compromise, giving senior students the option to study at home as long as they are still in class half the time.
Student Lola Parmenter said she believed the government had given up on stopping the spread of COVID-19 in schools.
“The government just wants us to work like little dogs,” she told ABC.
“We are afraid for our families [and] for ourselves. “
In Compiègne, north of Paris, demonstrators ransacked a police vehicle and set fire to debris.
A police union, the SICP, said the incident proved some protesters were violent and provocative.
“Are you going to tell us again that they are innocent children?” the police union tweeted.
However, in Paris, the ABC did not witness similar acts of vandalism.
Police have been contacted for comment.
A student, Timothy, said he felt disappointed by the officers who interrupted the protest at his school.
“Instead of helping us… they [decided] to attack us, ”he said.
“We are in the land of human rights.
“We are authorized to [protest]. «
This lock is different from the first
Not only are French schools open this time, but there are plenty of reasons people can escape lockdown.
Getting to and from work, attending medical appointments and doing personal exercise are among the exemptions.
At Gare Saint-Lazare, there was a large crowd of commuters.
“During the first lockout, no one dared to go out, everyone was afraid of catching the virus,” commuter Anne told the ABC.
“Now everyone is a bit fed up with it so everyone goes out and the lockdown doesn’t make much sense anymore.
“We all have a justification for going out, some say they will go to work, others just to run. “
Police can stop people on the street and demand that they see a written explanation of their activities.
Officers demanded to see the ABC materials and were satisfied when they were produced.
Another commuter, Nadia Madjour, said she believed people were faking their reasons for being outside.
“A lot of people come out today and say they are going to work but they made a fake work certificate I’m sure,” she said.
While famous monuments like the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and the Champs Elysees shops are deserted, other public spaces are in turmoil.
The ABC visited a busy fresh produce market a few blocks from the Eiffel Tower, where Parisians purchased snails, cheeses, fresh fruits and vegetables.
The purchase of essential supplies is allowed under the lockdown, but in France the definition of “essential” is unique.
“People want to have a good time during the lockdown,” said Sophie, who sells snails – edible snails.
“So I have sold more snails since the lockdown started. “
Doctors warn of coming crisis
Some doctors think the government should crack down more.
Benjamin Davido, an infectious disease specialist at Raymond-Poincaré hospital, said a short period of harsher measures would save the health system time.
“If we make the lockdown more difficult, I think the number of cases will drop a lot faster,” he said.
“So maybe we can have a free period to wait for a vaccine. “
The government said last week that a COVID-19 patient was admitted to hospital every 30 seconds.
There are nearly 5,000 patients in intensive care, while the total number of people hospitalized with coronavirus was 33,497 on Monday.
Dr Davido said healthcare workers were so rare that some felt pressure to continue working even if they suspected they had been infected.
“We are urged to work even though we are COVID positive… because the pressure is so great,” he told ABC.
He said his hospital was still able to treat all of his patients, but he didn’t know how long that would last.
“We do not know if in the next 15 days there will not be too many [many] patients and a real overload inside the hospital. “