The Underpriviledged 'Ghosts' Haunting French Universities

Young people sign up for higher education solely for scholarship money, while officials turn a blind eye to those permanently absent from class. Is this a twisted way to buy social peace?

Empty seats
Empty seats
Pascale Kremer

PERPIGNAN – The sociology exam started less than half an hour ago. In small groups of two or three, a continuous flood of students is leaving the University of Perpignan lecture hall n°4.

None of them answered any of the questions on the test. They only came in to sign the attendance sheet so that they could continue to be eligible for their scholarship. “We just sign and leave as quickly as possible," says one. "Here, we’re being paid to do nothing.”

All swagger and smiles, Ilyes, Ryan and Dylan are very straightforward about this strategy to make a living in times of crisis in this depressed region in the southwest France. “With our scholarship and some off-the-books work here and there, we can easily make 1,500 euros a month.”

Coming out next is a girl in a hurry, running on her high heels. “I have an appointment at the hairdresser, I can’t remember where exactly...” The next two blonde girls who come out of the lecture hall have signed up to take the nurses exam. “The preparatory course is really expensive,” one explains.

Sitting next to each other, Sarah, Fara, Sabrina, Samia and some other girls did not really take the test either. Half of them are dressed like reality TV starlets; the other half wear headscarves. They are repeating their first year of sociology (“It’s not interesting, it doesn’t get you anywhere”) after passing a vocational baccalaureate in secretarial work, and failing to get into a vocational degree. They have been working here and there, “at KFC’s,” or as cleaning ladies.

Ends meeting

Scholarship money? “They should give us more!” They laugh. “I usually spend it all in three days: phone bill, clothes, and it’s gone. There’s just no chance we could get 400 euros a month from our parents!”

Slightly apart from the group, one of the girls’ brothers is listening with some embarrassment. After his vocational classes, his application to the vocational degree he dreamed about was rejected, then he couldn't find a job, not even temporary. “Four hundred euros helps make ends meet,” he says, when you are the eldest of four children, with a father working as a shopkeeper and a mother doing cleaning jobs. “It’s not like I’m happy here. I’d rather be doing what I like.”

Aude Harle, director of the sociology department, comes out of the lecture theatre with a pile of 84 tests papers that have not been filled out, for a total of 161 students signed up for the exam. Two days before, for the law exam, there were around 60 blank test papers out of 300. In social economics, 20 out of 80.

The university is getting so concerned about these "ghost" students that the number of students enrolled has been limited in sociology and social economics, so as to avoid last-minute enrolments.

Empty classroom at the University of Perpignan - Photo: Kippelboy

“We have always had fake students, but the trend has been accelerating in the past two or three years, along with the rise in the unemployment rate,” explains Fabrice Lorente, president of the University of Perpignan.

This region near the border with Spain, has the third highest unemployment rate in the country. “These young people come looking for a minimum income, and it’s quite tiny – it shows that they are struggling.”

The scholarship amounts to 470 euros a month from September to June. Students are allowed to have a job on the side, are exempt from tuition fees, and have access to social security and various discounts, particularly in transports. In return, they have to attend exams and tutorials.

Students are supposed to stay in the exam room for a third of the examination time, so that latecomers can be admitted. But teachers are having trouble keeping these fake students quiet: they come with no pen, fidget with impatience, shout at each other, use their mobile phones and sometimes try to sneak out of the room. “They were being so noisy today that I threatened to throw them out and mark them as absent,” says Harle.

Quite a frightening prospect. Being absent means you lose the scholarship. The sociologist now organizes the lecture hall so that students who actually want to take the exam are not disturbed; she encourages “those who want to leave quickly” to sit on the right side, and then lets them out, a row at a time.

Class tensions

Tutorial supervisors are also under pressure – if students miss three tutorials, they cannot attend the exam, and lose their scholarship as a consequence. For two or three hours in a row, tutorial supervisors struggle to catch the students’ attention, while many of them are unruly, chatting among themselves, listening to music, sending text or sleeping on their desks.

The dean of the University is angry: this phenomenon is having a negative impact on first year statistics. “We are being blamed for low success rates. But these students don’t want to work! And the way the system works means that funding is allocated according to first year success rates.” The success rate is 15% in social economics, 29% in sociology, but 44% overall on all courses, once the ghost student problem has been diluted. The University of Perpignan nonetheless ranks 9th in France.

According to Nicolas Marty and Yves Picod, heads of the faculties of art and law, this is a way for the state to buy social peace. The governments turn a blind eye to these scholarships, which are giving families an extra income and keeping many young people out of the unemployment statistics.

For Marty and Picod, these grants should only be allocated to students who reach minimum results. Not excellent marks, as long as they do not fail... But among sociology teachers, the issue is more sensitive: they fear their subject may be stigmatized, and all scholarship students discarded as frauds, when some of them have excellent marks. They fear a whole generation of youngsters might be blamed.

Moreover, in Perpignan, most underprivileged young people are often from families who emigrated from North Africa, which adds fuel to anti-immigration rhetoric. Eliane Le Dantec, sociology professor, is worried about the situation: “During exams, we can now see that students are more and more class-conscious, and there is some animosity between disadvantaged working-class students and those who are better off, working-class or middle-class," says Le Dantec. "While university is supposed to be a place of diversity, we can now hear racist remarks.”

Earlier on, two girls coming out of the lecture theatre pointed out a group of young men of North African descent: “These guys are just taking advantage of the system, they’re not even looking for a job.”

These young people who struggle financially, and whose parents are often unemployed, Harle knows them well. “They are not parasites! Objectively, they just need some money to subsist. They don’t know what they want yet, and for them university was the default solution, even if they don’t have the necessary background knowledge for it. In sociology, we have some students that come from vocational baccalaureates in cooking or masonry! They don’t study, but they hang in there because if they give up, they have to pay back the scholarship money they have received since the beginning of the course…”

Could a welfare allowance for young people solve the problem? For Jean Jacob, who teaches political science, it would at least help clarify the situation. Students would then be able to study in peace. And the rest would not have to cheat the system anymore.

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The Food Truck, A Sign That The White And Wealthy Are Moving In

In San Diego, California, a researcher tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun.

Balboa Park Spring Fling Food Truck festival

San Diego Food Trucks via Facebook
Pascale Joassart-Marcelli

SAN DIEGO — Everybody, it seems, welcomes the arrival of new restaurants, cafés, food trucks and farmers markets.

What could be the downside of fresh veggies, homemade empanadas and a pop-up restaurant specializing in banh mis?

But when they appear in unexpected places – think inner-city areas populated by immigrants – they're often the first salvo in a broader effort to rebrand and remake the community. As a result, these neighborhoods can quickly become unaffordable and unrecognizable to longtime residents.

An appetite for gentrification

I live in San Diego, where I teach courses on urban and food geographies and conduct research on the relationship between food and ethnicity in urban contexts.

In recent years, I started to notice a pattern playing out in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked food options. More ethnic restaurants, street vendors, community gardens and farmers markets were cropping up. These, in turn, spurred growing numbers of white, affluent and college-educated people to venture into areas they had long avoided.

This observation inspired me to write a book, titled The $16 Taco, about how food – including what's seen as "ethnic," "authentic" or "alternative" – often serves as a spearhead for gentrification.

Take City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood where successive waves of refugees from places as far away as Vietnam and Somalia have resettled. In 2016, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice) to neighborhood residents, along with tourists and visitors from other parts of the city.

Informal street vendors are casualties.

A public-private partnership called the City Heights Community Development Corporation, together with several nonprofits, launched the initiative to increase "access to healthy and culturally appropriate food" and serve as "a business incubator for local micro-entrepreneurs," including immigrants and refugees who live in the neighborhood.

On paper, this all sounds great.

But just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors – who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets – now face heightened harassment. They've become causalities in a citywide crackdown on sidewalk vending spurred by complaints from business owners and residents in more affluent areas.

This isn't just happening in San Diego. The same tensions have been playing out in rapidly gentrifying areas like Los Angeles' Boyle Heights neighborhood, Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, New York's Queens borough and East Austin, Texas.

In all of these places, because "ethnic," "authentic" and "exotic" foods are seen as cultural assets, they've become magnets for development.

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

A call for food justice

Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation.

Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure.

It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies. Small food businesses, with their relatively low cost of entry, have been a cornerstone of ethnic entrepreneurship in American cities. And initiatives like farmers markets and street fairs don't require much in the way of public investment; instead, they rely on entrepreneurs and community-based organizations to do the heavy lifting.

In City Heights, the Community Development Corporation hosted its first annual City Heights Street Food Festival in 2019 to "get people together around table and food stalls to celebrate another year of community building." Other recent events have included African Restaurant Week, Dia de Los Muertos, New Year Lunar Festival, Soul Food Fest and Brazilian Carnival, all of which rely on food and drink to attract visitors and support local businesses.

Meanwhile, initiatives such as the New Roots Community Farm and the City Heights Farmers' Market have been launched by nonprofits with philanthropic support in the name of "food justice," with the goal of reducing racial disparities in access to healthy food and empowering residents – projects that are particularly appealing to highly educated people who value diversity and democracy.

Upending an existing foodscape

In media coverage of changing foodscapes in low-income neighborhoods like City Heights, you'll rarely find any complaints.

San Diego Magazine's neighborhood guide for City Heights, for example, emphasizes its "claim to authentic international eats, along with live music venues, craft beer, coffee, and outdoor fun." It recommends several ethnic restaurants and warns readers not to be fooled by appearances.

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against the "urban food machine"

But that doesn't mean objections don't exist.

Many longtime residents and small-business owners – mostly people of color and immigrants – have, for decades, lived, worked and struggled to feed their families in these neighborhoods. To do so, they've run convenience stores, opened ethnic restaurants, sold food in parks and alleys and created spaces to grow their own food.

All represent strategies to meet community needs in a place mostly ignored by mainstream retailers.

So what happens when new competitors come to town?

Food vendor at outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44.

Fairat44 via Instagram

Starting at a disadvantage

As I document in my book, these ethnic food businesses, because of a lack of financial and technical support, often struggle to compete with new enterprises that feature fresh façades, celebrity chefs, flashy marketing, bogus claims of authenticity and disproportionate media attention. Furthermore, following the arrival of more-affluent residents, existing ones find it increasingly difficult to stay.

My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. The listings I studied from 2019 often enticed potential buyers with lines like "shop at the local farmers' market," "join food truck festivals" and "participate in community food drives!"

San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44.

When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

Going up against the urban food machine

Longtime residents find themselves forced to compete against what I call the "urban food machine," a play on sociologist Harvey Molotch's "urban growth machine" – a term he coined more than 50 years ago to explain how cities were being shaped by a loose coalition of powerful elites who sought to profit off urban growth.

I argue that investors and developers use food as a tool for achieving the same ends.

When their work is done, what's left is a rather insipid and tasteless neighborhood, where foodscapes become more of a marketable mishmash of cultures than an ethnic enclave that's evolved organically to meet the needs of residents. The distinctions of time and place start to blur: An "ethnic food district" in San Diego looks no different than one in Chicago or Austin.

Meanwhile, the routines and rhythms of everyday life have changed so much that longtime residents no longer feel like they belong. Their stories and culture reduced to a selling point, they're forced to either recede to the shadows or leave altogether.

It's hard to see how that's a form of inclusion or empowerment.The Conversation


Pascale Joassart-Marcelli is a Professor of Geography and Director, Urban Studies and Food Studies Programs at San Diego State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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